Before Stacy Lewis won the Kraft Nabisco Championship about two months ago, she was a successful college golfer trying to make the challenging transition to the professional ranks, but one with a compelling story to tell.
Lewis, 26, underwent back surgery right after her high school graduation to relieve scoliosis, a condition that causes excessive curvature of the spine. The surgery resulted in the insertion of a steel rod and five screws in her back that allowed her to put aside the back brace she had to wear for the previous seven years.
So when Lewis, who by all descriptions is basically a shy person, captured a 3-stroke victory at the 2011 Kraft Nabisco for her first major - indeed, her first win of any kind on the LPGA Tour - she received well wishes and praise not just from LPGA fans but from others who suffer with scoliosis.
"My agent told me that usually he gets e-mails when somebody wins saying just 'Congratulations' and that's it," she said. "But mine were 'Congratulations' and then people telling me their life story of how my win inspired them. It's just kind of different, I guess."
One of Lewis' biggest fans is 15-year-old Grace Desjardins of Malvern, who just completed her freshman year at Notre Dame Academy. Desjardins, who has worn a back brace for five years because of scoliosis, first met Lewis two years ago at the McDonald's LPGA Championship, and the pair have stayed in touch.
"Whenever I play well, she's usually one of the first people to e-mail me," Lewis said.
Desjardins said she got in her e-mail extra early after the Kraft Nabisco.
"It was great, she's such a great role model," Desjardins said. "I knew she was going to get a lot of e-mails and calls afterward, so I wanted to make sure I got mine in. She's such a great example of what you can become and what positive thinking can do."
After her gutty win over Yani Tseng, the world's No. 1 player, at the Kraft Nabisco, Lewis looks ready to become the next great American star. Then again, she has had to show a lot of guts to get to this point.
She was diagnosed with scoliosis when she was 11. She loved to golf but had to wear a back brace, which was particularly cumbersome during the hot summers in her native Texas. She said she and her mother fought over whether she needed to wear it but added, "I had to do it, and I'm glad I did."
After her surgery, Lewis redshirted her freshman year at Arkansas and then became one of the nation's best collegiate players. She won 12 tournaments in her career and earned all-American honors all four years. She tied for third in the 2008 U.S. Women's Open and won the LPGA's qualifying tournament later that year.
She finally broke through for her first triumph in her third LPGA season, and now the attention on her has increased exponentially, not just because of the way she played golf but because of her story. She'll be one to watch this week at the ShopRite LPGA Classic at Seaview Resort in Galloway Township.
She accepts the interest, but a bit grudgingly.
"I don't really like being in the spotlight," she said. "I'd rather just go about my business and not let anybody know about it. But it comes with the territory. Like my mom says, 'If you're going to play good golf, you've got to learn how to do everything else.' So I'm trying to learn to like it and learn how to be better at it.
"It's still kind of weird, me walking through an airport and somebody wanting an autograph or something like that. It's a good adjustment to make. But I'm still the same person, for sure. I haven't changed a bit."
But her fans, like Grace Desjardins, are delighted to see her in the spotlight and getting the attention. And Lewis knows how fortunate she is to be in this position.
"It just made you appreciate being able to play every day, and practice and be more thankful just for the little things," she said.