Scroll down the LPGA Tour money list, and the native lands of the top performers evoke the field of an Olympic event.
South Korea. Japan. Mexico. Australia. Spain. Norway.
Officials say such diversity — the top 14 money-winners hail from nine countries — is the beauty of the sport but for one enduring caveat. A homegrown tour that relies on U.S. dollars needs more U.S. stars.
"If it's the Olympics every week, you need some Americans to be in the mix or nobody watches the Olympics," said Kraig Kann, the LPGA's chief communications officer.
That is why Stacy Lewis does not take her role lightly.
As the newly minted top U.S. golfer returns to her roots for this week's Jamie Farr Toledo Classic, she is among the star-spangled flag-bearers for a sport still searching for its identity in a shifting landscape.
Tour leaders believe the Toledo native has the charisma, underdog narrative, and yes, the game to be the next American superstar.
Since undergoing back surgery for scoliosis in 2003 — doctors inserted a titanium rod and five screws to correct a severe curvature of her spine — Lewis has methodically climbed from a little-known recruit at Arkansas who was not the best player on her high school team to the verge of becoming the first American to lead the money list since 1993.
ASSOCIATED PRESS Enlarge
This season, the 27-year-old Lewis has won two tournaments, surpassed Christie Kerr as the No. 1 U.S. golfer and vaulted to second in the world rankings behind Taiwan's Yani Tseng. She will tee up Thursday at Highland Meadows Golf Club in Sylvania as the tour's runaway top money-winner with $1.2 million in earnings — the lone Yank among the top 14 golfers.
"I didn't really expect this," Lewis said in a phone interview last week. "It's been fun to kind of keep riding the momentum. I've been playing so well that it's almost hard to fathom."
Making of a star
Her next goal is more modest: Get noticed. While she will have 40-plus family and friends following her every step this week, a superstar between the ropes remains relatively unknown outside of them. Lewis' 7,000 followers on Twitter, for instance, are dwarfed by the online disciples of better-known but less successful American stars like Michelle Wie (87,000) and Natalie Gulbis (122,000).
Can Lewis be the next athlete to transcend her sport? She continues to add high-profile sponsorships, including Marathon Petroleum and opposite PGA star Phil Mickelson for the audit, tax and advisory firm KPMG, and has increasingly embraced her platform as a face of the sport.
Kann said Lewis has "come so far in the last year that it's amazing." As an on-air personality for the Golf Channel before joining the LPGA last summer, he said he viewed Lewis to be reserved and uncomfortable in the spotlight. But what he found was a marketer's dream: an athlete with a stirring story and a willing ambassador — the kind of golfer who accommodates every pen-wielding young supporter and personally returns fan mail.
In short, she was just what the LPGA needed.
"Stacy is one of those women that can help move the needle domestically," said Jeff Chilcoat, Lewis' agent. "Everybody loves to root for an underdog. Someone that pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and made it. She didn't come from a background where this all makes sense."
An improbable rise
The LPGA Tour's recent struggles are well-documented. There are fewer tournaments — the number of events fell from 34 in 2008 to 23 last year. Television coverage is unpredictable. And many of the top stars do not resonate with the stateside public. While a U.S. player was the tour's top earner every year but one between 1950 and 1993, no American has since topped the list.
But do not tell Lewis the script cannot change.
She was diagnosed with scoliosis at 11 and wore a back brace for 18 hours a day the next seven years, slipping it off only to play golf.
Lewis was born in Toledo but grew up outside Houston. Her parents, Dale and the former Carol Stoll, are both Toledo natives and Whitmer graduates. They moved south when Stacy was 2.
She hoped the brace had resolved the curvature by the time she signed a partial scholarship to play golf at Arkansas. Instead, it had worsened, and surgery could not wait. Lewis endured a six-hour operation that required one surgeon to deflate a lung and rearrange her organs while another straightened her spine.
She wondered if her career was over. Lewis spent the first three months after surgery virtually immobile and redshirted her freshman season at Arkansas.
Yet Lewis returned a better — and taller — golfer. (She grew two inches to 5-foot-5 after the surgery). Her short game sharpened by months in which she could only chip and putt, Lewis won the Southeastern Conference Tournament and All-American honors as a freshman.
She placed a program that had never qualified for the 24-team national meet on her now-healthy back, earning All-American honors in each of her four seasons and an individual national title as a senior.
Lewis struggled to adjust to the grind of living out of a suitcase as a professional. Away from the former comforts of family and teammates, she considers her low point not the uncertainty of back surgery but a tournament in Japan late in 2009.
"I was there by myself and I was playing bad golf and I didn't know what I was doing," said Lewis, who finished 47th on the money list that season. "I didn't know what my goals were and didn't really have a coach I was working with."
Lewis, though, soon hired a swing coach and a trainer and rediscovered her edge. She made 23 of 24 cuts last season and won the Kraft Nabisco Championship, a major, by three strokes, then demanded notice this spring as she won her second and third career tournament titles in a four-event stretch this spring.
A return home
Now, she returns to the place where it all began.
It was at the Farr Classic in 2006 where she made her LPGA debut as an amateur exemption. She missed the cut, but made an impression.
"What I remember most about it is her coming into the tournament office and she was mad she missed the cut," Farr Classic director Judd Silverman said. "You could tell right then and there she's a competitor."
Six years later, she is not only a leading contender to win the tournament but a face of her sport.
Lewis sees a tour heading in the right direction. There are four more tournaments than last year and sponsor dollars are returning, evidenced locally by the Farr's purse jumping from $1 million in 2010 to $1.3 million this year. But she knows there is a ways to go, and wants to do her part. Lewis mentors young golfers and recently donated $100,000 to Arkansas. She is an active member of the tour's players communications committee. ("I'm not going to slam the PGA Tour," Kann said, "but I highly doubt Phil Mickelson is walking up to the communications director saying, ‘Let's try to grow the brand.') And, of course, she can keep winning.
"For the longevity and the growth of the tour, it's very important that Stacy and other younger Americans step up," said her father, Dale Lewis. "The tour needs them contending every week."
It is a charge Lewis embraces. The golfer whose career once seemed so fragile now aims to be nothing less than the greatest American of her generation.
"I'd like to be player of the year and eventually get to No. 1 in the world," she said. "But I also want to continue to grow the tour and give kids that are growing up now the same opportunities that I've had to play golf. I'm just trying to leave this tour in a better place."
Contact David Briggs at email@example.com, 419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.