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PHOENIX — As a teenager, Stacy Lewis spent 18 hours a day wearing a back brace to cope with scoliosis. That was hard.
While in college, Lewis — a Toledo native who moved away when she was 2 years old — had an operation on her back and could not play golf for a year. That was harder.
Her hardest challenge may be ahead of her. On Monday, a day after winning her seventh LPGA Tour title, Lewis became the seventh woman to ascend to No. 1 in the world rankings. Cristie Kerr, in 2010, is the only other woman from the United States to achieve the feat.
With her victory in the LPGA Founders Cup, Lewis ended the 109-week reign of Yani Tseng, who sounded relieved to relinquish her crown.
“I’m happy for Stacy,” Tseng said. “It’s good for American golf.”
She added: “I think maybe going back to No. 2 is good for me. I’ve been there before. I know how to get to No. 1.”
Tseng is the game’s biggest name in her native Taiwan, and the stresses of being the face of golf there wore on her. She has spoken of not enjoying golf as much as she used to, of feeling burdened by expectations, starting with her own.
Ai Miyazato of Japan, who finished second to Lewis at the Founders Cup after taking a four-stroke lead into the final round, was one of three players who occupied the No. 1 spot between Lorena Ochoa and Tseng.
“Being the No. 1 is definitely a lot of pressure, like more than any,” Miyazato said.
She added: “When I was No. 1, it was just, I never had an experience like that before. It was just a lot of pressure every day, and it feels like I have to play good every day.”
At Wildfire Golf Club on Sunday, members of the Japanese news media following Miyazato outnumbered the U.S. journalists following Lewis, who will never have to worry about being golf’s leading ambassador in her country as long as Tiger Woods is competing.
Lewis is even overshadowed in her neighborhood. The men’s No. 1 player, Rory McIlroy, lives near her in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
Because women’s golf is not a staple on the networks or on ESPN, Lewis does not receive the notice she deserves.
For all its significance, her victory Sunday gained little national attention. It was eclipsed by the release of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament pairings, the Miami Heat's 22-game winning streak and Darrelle Revis’ future with the New York Jets.
On Monday afternoon, on the Web site of the LPGA’s U.S. television partner, Golf Channel, Luke Donald was a trending topic and Lewis was not.
Lewis, 28, ought to be a household name by now, but her lower profile could prove a blessing if it prevents her from being overwhelmed by outside pressures and expectations.
“I’m excited about the rest of the year more than anything,” she said Sunday. “I’m having a blast on the golf course, and to be No. 1 in the world, it’s what everybody out here on tour is working for, and to be that person is, I mean, I really don't even know what to say.”
Lewis learned from watching Tseng, her good friend, fall short in keeping expectations in check. “And I'm going to have fun, I know that,” Lewis said. “I watched Yani struggle with it for too long, and I'm going to go have fun.”
In a nod to the pioneers who made her career possible, Lewis said she planned to donate $50,000 of her $225,000 winner’s check to Girls Golf, a program embraced by the LPGA and the U.S. Golf Association that introduces girls ages 7-17 to the game.
“Just kind of put it in the back of my mind, if I won, I want to do that,” Lewis said.
Lewis was referring to the tour’s trailblazers, including the five who watched Sunday’s conclusion from behind the 18th green, when she said: “To have our founders out this week and our pioneers, they worked so much harder than I do right now to get this tour up and running, and everything is because of them.
“So for me, I mean, I feel like I need to keep giving back to the game and giving back to those kids because they're the future.”