Imagine being an amateur player in the field of the 70th U.S. Women’s Open Championship and getting to play a practice round with the No. 3-ranked player in the world.
Now imagine that same player, who has won 11 LPGA tournaments and earned a boatload of accolades, being interested in your success on the course and even showing you how to play a few shots around the green.
It might sound too good to be true, but three young players from Mexico had that experience Tuesday afternoon during a practice round at Lancaster Country Club with Stacy Lewis, the LPGA’s 2014 Rolex Player of the Year.
Why were they the recipients of such inside knowledge?
Well, two of the players, Gaby Lopez and Regina Plasencia, are members of the women’s golf team at the University of Arkansas, where Lewis also played college golf. The third player, Maria Fassi, is a rising high school senior who says she will attend Arkansas in 2016 as a freshman. (Fassi has not yet signed a letter of intent with the school.)
But more importantly for Lewis, it’s about helping young players get ready for a big event like the U.S. Women’s Open.
“They are Razorbacks and a future Razorback, that’s part of it, but I want to see these kids be successful,” said Lewis, a four-time All-America player and 12-time winner at Arkansas, where she was also the individual 2007 NCAA Division I champion.
“They’re all really talented and I want them to learn what it takes to play at the highest level,” Lewis added. “What better way than to see it out here and to watch the way I practice and the way I go about things?”
Lopez got an on-course lesson Tuesday from Lewis on different ways to play out of the course’s penalizing rough. Lewis considered hitting a 5- or 6-iron for one shot, but ended up selecting a hybrid club and using a three-quarter-swing punch shot to pop the ball out and roll it onto the green.
Lewis encouraged Lopez to try hitting the shot the same way. Much to the collegian’s surprise, it worked.
“There’s not just one way to hit shots, so I had Gaby try something different,” said Lewis, who was runner-up to Michelle Wie in last year’s Women’s Open at Pinehurst. “I love showing these girls shots and the coolest part is when you can tell they get it.”
The other thing Lewis did was to expose the three amateurs to the most distracting and nerve-racking aspect of her job. They witnessed large crowds pressed around tees and practice areas, fans seeking autographs, media asking questions and Lewis maneuvering her way through it all at a major championship.
“If you are not used to a big event like this, it’s very uncomfortable,” Lewis said. “I get them out there with me with a lot going on and let them see what it’s like. If they do it in a practice round, it’s going to be a lot easier on Thursday.”
Lopez agreed, watching as Lewis was greeted greenside by media even after her Tuesday practice round.
“From the cameras, to the people, to the media, she helps us get more comfortable with it all and to try to make this feel like just another golf tournament,” said Lopez, a senior at Arkansas who is competing in her second Women’s Open. “It’s a matter of being comfortable out here and knowing we are good enough to compete against these girls.”
“She talked to us and really made us feel comfortable,” added Plasencia, also a senior at Arkansas, whose cousin, former LPGA Tour player Sophia Sheridan, is caddieing for her this week in her first Women’s Open. “She also showed me some shots and shared what she saw on the greens and how the ball would break.”
Fassi learned that, while she may not have the same amount of experience as many others, she still has a chance to play well this week.
“Stacy helped me see that everyone can make shots and everyone makes mistakes,” said Fassi, who recently reached the Round of 16 with fellow teen Maria Balcazar, also of Mexico, in the inaugural U.S. Women’s Four-Ball. “It’s my first U.S. Women’s Open, so she helped me with that. She shared some really good stuff.”
Lewis kept the atmosphere relaxed, but also helped the players to focus on their preparation.
“I think it says a lot about Stacy that she’s so willing to lend a helping hand to these young players who have the dream of playing out here someday,” said University of Arkansas head coach Shauna Estes, who walked the course Tuesday with her Razorbacks. “It’s pretty fun to watch them interact and learn, and to see Stacy teaching shots at a major championship.”
Lewis returns to Arkansas several times a year to practice alongside the collegians and to serve as a volunteer assistant coach for the team. She knows the players and they know and respect Lewis.
“She’s continued to support us every way she can and she’s still interested in helping us be the best that we can be,” said Estes.
“It means a lot for her to show friendship to us,” added Lopez. “Obviously, what she’s doing out here works, so what she’s showing us is the way to success.”
If the three young players can get comfortable with the kind of attention that Lewis draws every time she steps onto the course, they will leave this week’s Open with more experience than they ever imagined.
Lisa D. Mickey is a Florida-based freelance writer whose work frequently appears on USGA websites.