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Toledo-born LPGA star authors feel-good sports story of year

09/04/2017, 6:44pm EDT
Toledo-born LPGA star authors feel-good sports story of year

Stacy Lewis poses with the trophy and a check after winning the the Cambia Portland Classic tournament. Lewis is donating her winnings to help victims of Hurricane Harvey. AP

It was one thing for Stacy Lewis to make the biggest guarantee of her career.

It was something else entirely for the Toledo-born LPGA star to deliver even bigger.

If there are better sports stories this year than Lewis’ victory at the Portland Classic, we’d like to hear them.

Never mind the Babe calling his shot or Broadway Joe calling victory in Super Bowl III. Lewis’ promise carried a little more substance, a pledge of her full tournament winnings last weekend to the relief efforts in Houston, her devastated hometown.

In one way, she had never felt more pressure, the last thing she needed after going more than three years without a tournament win. In another, she had never felt less.

Lewis, after all, was playing a game, one the rest of us do for alleged fun. Back home in Houston was real life, the trillions of gallons of water dumped by Hurricane Harvey flooding hundreds of thousands of homes and leaving at least 50 dead.

Closest to home, the storm had displaced the University of Houston women’s golf team. Lewis’ husband, Gerrod Chadwell, is the coach there and sheltered his players first in their year-old home, then at a temporary base three hours up I-45 in Dallas. In between, he kayaked across the team’s inundated golf course to retrieve their equipment.

From afar, all Lewis did was worry about her family — including her parents, Dale and Carol, Toledo natives transplanted two decades ago to The Woodlands in suburban Houston — and her city.

And all she did next was deliver the performance of her career, collecting and then dispensing her first winner’s check since June 2014. Her two main sponsors followed suit, with Findlay-based Marathon Petroleum donating $1 million and KPMG matching her winning prize of $195,000.

The 32-year-old Lewis has achieved many things in her LPGA career: a No. 1 world ranking, $10 million in earnings, 12 tournament wins, two major championships. The win Sunday felt bigger than any of them.

“People wanted me to win this for Houston,” Lewis said. “To do it when I added pressure to myself is a pretty good, pretty cool deal.”

If the scene did not tug on you, little in sports will. After Lewis clinched her one-shot win over In Gee Chun, she broke down in the embrace of a surprise visitor. Chadwell had flown to Portland for the final round and holed up in the Golf Channel tower before emerging on the 18th green.

“I was fine until he showed up,” Lewis said, “and then I started crying,”

The emotions continued as the well wishes poured in, from Toledo — where Lewis lived until she was 2 and her aunts and uncles remain — to Texas. Her parents’ phones detonated, too.

“Unbelievable win and incredible generosity,” Marathon Classic tournament director Judd Silverman texted Dale, a childhood friend. “You've raised quite a kid. We couldn't be more proud of her.”

“It was all pretty amazing,” Dale said by phone Monday.

Her parents sensed early in the tournament something special might be happening.

They knew well the toll these past three years had taken on Lewis. Even as she remained one of the top players in the world, her winless stretch grew into the elephant in the clubhouse. Her dozen runner-up finishes during the drought only made it worse, each close-but-no-trophy performance cranking up the heat.

“She hears it every week: ‘When are you going to win again?’” Dale said. “You try to put it out of your mind, but there's no way you can.”

The hurricane then did just that, the big storm making golf seem so small.

Lewis saw the chilling images and heard the stories from back home. Her house was dry, as was her parents’ place in The Woodlands, where Lewis moved when she was 11. “We sit probably eight feet off the street level,” said Dale, never thinking that would possibly matter. “We used to say we had the steepest driveway in The Woodlands.” But nearby neighborhoods — and, of course, so many in the metro area — were less fortunate. The family’s friends across town had as much as eight feet of water swamping their first floors.

“The devastation is unbelievable,” Dale said. “You can’t comprehend it.”

Playing in Portland but with her mind on Houston, Lewis teed off looser than ever.

“She kind of got out of her way this week and played golf again and forgot about all the other stuff,” Dale said. “She didn't let a bad shot carry over this time. I've seen her play so much that I could see her reactions to her shots were different this week. The bad shots didn't bother her because she knew the next one she was going to hit a good one.”

And she always did, right down to the finish.

Holding a one-shot lead heading into the the par-4 18th, Lewis hit her drive into a fairway bunker. But perhaps with a nudge from above, she drilled her approach onto the green and two-putted to victory.

“I just kind of handed over control and said, ‘Take me. Take me to the finish line. Let me know what happens, God,’” Lewis said. “It was just amazing how when you let go of the control like that how great you can play.”

Contact David Briggs at dbriggs@theblade.com419-724-6084 or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.

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