RIO DE JANEIRO — Over the last two years something peculiar has happened to Stacy Lewis: She has forgotten how to win. Since her last victory Lewis has 25 top-10s on the LPGA tour and has been runner-up on a whopping 12 occasions. One of the LPGA’s grittiest competitors was threatening to become always the bridesmaid, and it wasn’t hard to diagnose why. “I want to win so badly,” Lewis says, “I can sometimes get in my own way.”
Twelve days ago Lewis took time out from the packed LPGA schedule to marry University of Houston women’s golf coach Gerrod Chadwell. The trip to Rio was essentially their honeymoon. Lewis has a full-time swing coach but her hubby has a good eye and so, after a scratchy opening 70, they repaired to the range at the Olympic Golf Course. When Lewis is upset her whole visage changes; her face flushes and she gets what Kelly Hester, her coach at Arkansas, calls “the trademark Stacy puffy-cheeked-I’m-about-to-make-a-bunch of-birdies look.” Lewis had that appearance heading to the range on Wednesday but Chadwell patiently cooed advice. “He’s learned the different levels of grumpiness with me, I guess,” she says with a twinkle.
On Thursday, Lewis brought a different attitude to the course, saying she felt “freed up,” though a molten putter surely had something to do with that. Eleven birdies later, she had shot a 63, setting a new course record for women and tying Marcus Fraser for the lowest round ever shot on the Olympic track. (O.K., it’s only been six competitive days, but still.) Lewis sits alone in second place, one stroke behind Inbee Park, who posted her second straight 66 to reach 10 under par.
World number three Brooke Henderson (64) and Solheim Cup star Charley Hull (66) are tied for third at eight under. Even with so much firepower at the top of the leaderboard Lewis likes her chances going forward, saying, “There are some swings out there today I’d like to have over again but I feel like I know what I need to do. We’re heading in the right direction and still haven’t played my best golf yet.”
Park has long been golf’s queen bee, but the arrival of Henderson, 18, and Hull, 20, is a welcome development if this Olympic experiment is going to mint a new superstar. Hull is basically the Dustin Johnson of women’s golf, a tremendously natural player who will never be accused of overthinking on the course. In the run-up to Rio she was asked about all the concerns swirling about these Games and she offered a two-word rebuttal: “F— it.”
Says Lydia Ko: “I’d say she’s a very confident player. No matter if she didn’t hit a very good shot on the hole before, she almost seems like, Hey, I forgot about that already and she’s on to the next. She kind of has [the attitude] where, I don’t really care. Obviously she does care, but that’s good because it can put a little less pressure on you.”
Henderson, 18, is a much more intense personality, and she willed herself back into this tournament by birdieing five of the last six holes. “I tend to come on strong at the end,” she said. But that was definitely one of my better [finishes].”
It’s hard to believe but Henderson is not the youngest player in the field. That honor goes to 18-year-old Aditi Ashok, who shot her second straight 68 to move into a tie for eighth and stoke the dreams of those in golf who have long prayed that India could emerge as a robust new market. Ashok’s name translates to “mother of the son god. (“Sounds powerful, right?” she cracks.) In fact, she is aware of the influence she could have in a country of 1.25 billion, which currently has barely 200 courses. “We all know the story of Se Ri Pak, how she won the U.S. Open and kick-started a revolution in Korea,” Ashok says. “I don’t know if I can do something like that but for sure winning a medal would be huge in India, where we do not win many things in the Olympics.”
Whatever burden Lewis feels is more personal. She has already won a Dinah Shore and a Women’s British Open, where she famously birdied the Road Hole on Sunday to clinch the win.
In 2012 she became the first American to be named player of the year since Beth Daniel in 1994. The heightened expectations were a paradigm shift for a young woman who wore a back brace between junior tournaments, who wasn’t the best player on her high school team, who was snubbed for the Curtis Cup as a college sophomore and as national player of the year as a senior. “I’ve always been the underdog, which I kind of liked,” Lewis says.
Two frustrating, winless years have in some ways returned her to that role. But gone is the lone wolf ethos that often had Lewis playing practice rounds alone. On the topic of being in love, Lewis gushed earlier this year, “The biggest thing is I’ve got somebody in my life that’s more important than any golf tournament I’ll ever play in, or any tournament I’ll ever win, and I honestly never thought I would be up here saying that. It’s a little bit strange to me, and that’s one thing I’m trying to figure out right now.”
Lewis is still not sure if she’ll wear her wedding band when she plays; as a precaution, she didn’t bring any rings to Rio. And yet two days from now she could be leaving here with gold.