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American Stacy Lewis triumphantly accepted the Rolex Player of the Year award at tonight's Rolex Awards Celebration, becoming the first U.S.-born player to do so in nearly two decades. LPGA and World Golf Halls of Fame member Beth Daniel, the last American winner in 1994, was on-hand to assist in presenting the award.
"I just think back to 10 years ago when I remember sitting in a doctor's office and him telling me that I was going to have to have back surgery," Lewis said. "That was the time that, I mean, I thought I would never play golf again. Now 10 years later I'm here winning Player of the Year, that's crazy. That's not normal, you know? People that normally win Player of the Year are pretty talented and have kind of played well all along and I've just kind of slowly worked my way up and I think it's most satisfying, everything I've overcome."
Lewis' award capped off a star-studded evening at The Ritz Carlton Golf Resort in Naples. So Yeon Ryu also accepted the Louise Suggs Rolex Rookie of the Year, which she clinched following the Sunrise LPGA Taiwan Championship. The Vare Trophy race for low scoring average remains too close to call and will be announced following play on Sunday at the CME Group Titleholders. Additionally, the six Rolex First-Time Winners from the 2012 season were also recognized.
Lewis, who mathematically clinched the award at last week's Lorena Ochoa Invitational, leads the Tour heading into weekend play at the CME Group Titleholders with four victories and 16 top-10 finishes this season. In June, following victories at the Mobile Bay LPGA Classic and the ShopRite LPGA Classic, Lewis moved to No. 3 in the Rolex Rankings and became the top-ranked American in the world. The following week, she moved to No. 2 in the world â€“ the position she currently holds â€“ following a runner-up finish at the Wegmans LPGA Championship.
In September, Lewis completed the "Alabama Slam," winning the Navistar LPGA Classic to strengthen her lead in the Player of the Year race, though it was anything but a runaway. Instead it became a two-player race as the season turned to fall thanks to the consistent play of Inbee Park, who recorded 10 consecutive top-10 finishes including two victories. Lewis' win at the Mizuno Classic in Japan three weeks ago gave her a 58 point lead in the Player of the Year race with two events remaining and her tie for fourth last week clinched the trophy.
"It's unbelievable, especially the way I played the last few months with all the pressure," Lewis said. "I've been thinking about it every day and all the time, and it's just crazy to me just how far I've come over the last few years. To be the best player on this Tour, I don't even know what to say."
The last two American Rolex Player of the Year winners, Betsy King and Beth Daniel, were both on hand this evening to see Lewis accept the honor.
"I'm very excited for Stacy," said King, the 1993 recipient. "I know she is playing consistently well this year and obviously winning four times, I think she is deserving of it. I know she has worked hard on her game and I think she's a player that could be up there for a long time. The more that the Americans are out there and play well, it's going to encourage the younger generation to do the same."
"I could not be happier to see Stacy win this award," said Daniel, the winner in 1994. "Stacy has the discipline to be a top player on the LPGA for a long time. She came out with such high expectations after her college career and it's hard when you have that burden. She is really showing her potential this year."
From the age of 11, Lewis wore a back brace 18 hours per day for 7-1/2 years to correct curvature in her spine from scoliosis, removing the brace only to play golf. She had back surgery to insert a titanium rod and five screws during her senior year of high school and redshirted for one season before joining the University of Arkansas women's golf team. As a member of the University of Arkansas women's golf team, Lewis won 12 collegiate events and was a four-time All-American. She was the 2005 Southeastern Conference (SEC) Freshman of the Year, the 2007 NCAA Division I National Champion and the 2008 SEC Championship Individual Medalist and Player of the Year.
Lewis was the medalist at the 2008 LPGA Final Qualifying Tournament and joined the Tour as a rookie in 2009. In 2011, she became a Rolex First-Time Winner and major champion at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, where she defeated defending champion Yani Tseng by three shots and crossed the $1 million mark in career earnings. Nineteen months later, she crossed the $4 million mark in earnings with her victory at the Mizuno Classic.
"Coming into the year, I just wanted to hopefully win and be the top American in the Rolex Rankings and I think in May I accomplished both of those goals," Lewis said. "The middle of the year is when Player of the Year really kind of came on my mind and I thought that it was something that was possible and it was attainable."
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