About nine months ago, Stacy Lewis figured she had no chance to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics and earn the medal she missed by one bobbling putt in Rio.
“With where I was in the rankings, and tournaments were getting canceled, I just assumed there was no opportunity,” she said by phone Monday. “The Olympics really hadn’t been on my radar at all.”
Now, a return to the Olympics in 2021 is plausible. Strong play in her home state of Texas the next two weeks could vault Lewis into the top 15 in the world, a necessary floor to make the U.S. team come the June rankings cutoff.
“Normally we’re done before Thanksgiving and you put the clubs away and you don’t worry about it,” Lewis said. “It’s definitely strange this year.”
She’s entered in this week’s Volunteers of America Classic (Golf Channel TV schedule here) and next week’s U.S. Women’s Open (live on NBC, Golf Channel and Peacock). Lewis, in a bounce-back season, is ranked 33rd in the world.
If the Olympic golf field was determined by today’s rankings, the U.S. team would be Nelly Korda (No. 3 in the world), Danielle Kang (No. 4) and Lexi Thompson (No. 11). The top four U.S. women qualify for Tokyo, if they are all in the top 15 in the world.
“I have more time to make it,” Lewis said. “I’m paying attention more to the rankings now and where I stand.”
Lewis, a two-time major winner, still remembers her 15-foot putt on the 72nd hole in Rio that stopped a ball’s roll short of the cup. She shot a 66 — after a third-round 76 — and missed a potential playoff for a bronze medal by one shot.
“It was awful,” she said. “It stinks, but at the same time, finishing fourth is better than not having a chance at all to win a medal.”
Lewis was one of 17 U.S. athletes to finish fourth in Rio in an individual event. Most of the other 16 competed in disciplines where the Olympics are unquestionably the biggest competition in their sport.
Lewis said the feeling of placing fourth in an Olympic golf tournament is similar to finishing runner-up at one of the annual majors (which she has done three times).
“Second at the Olympics is OK,” she said. “It’s a consolation prize that you still get a medal, but most of us are going there to win a gold. If you get one of the other two, it’s a nice bonus.”
Lewis still got something for finishing fourth: a drug test, just in case something happened above her that could alter the final medal standings.
She flew home to Texas with her husband, Gerrod Chadwell, whom she married a week before the Olympic tournament. Lewis then had daughter Chesnee in October 2018. She went on maternity leave earlier that year ranked 33rd in the world. She came back, after six months, the following January ranked 61st.
In the final week of 2019, Lewis fell outside the top 100 for the first time since 2008, when she finished her college career at Arkansas (and, best as she can recall, last played a December tournament, winning q-school). Her season was cut short by back pain and a rib cage injury.
The Olympic postponement to 2021, announced in March, offered a second chance for the 35-year-old Lewis, the only U.S. woman to hold the world No. 1 ranking at any point in the last decade (in 2013 and 2014).
This past August, when the Tokyo Games would have just wrapped up, she recorded her first tournament win in nearly three years. The next month, she finished fifth at the ANA Inspiration, her first top 10 at a major in three years.
“Winning and the Olympics getting postponed to next year, I mean those are two of the best things that could happen for me, really,” she said.
It’s still very much a climb as things stand. Not only must Lewis jump back into the top 15, but she must also fend off four other Americans ranked between Nos. 26-31, all younger than her.
Lewis, who grew up near Houston, believes she’ll get a boost with the site of the U.S. Open, which will offer a bevy of ranking points as a major. It’s being played at two courses at Champions Golf Club in Houston. She estimated she’s played between 10 and 12 rounds on each course.
“Normally, the hard part about a U.S. Open is getting to know the golf course,” she said. “I’ve played out there a lot, especially over the last few months.”
The pandemic has helped her game. There have been fewer “extras,” from pro-am parties to sponsor and media obligations to fulfill. That has meant more family time.
“She’s sleeping more,” she said of Chesnee. “We still have those nights where she’s up.”
Lewis is eager for another shot at an Olympic medal, putting it up with (if not above) winning another major. Her Rio experience, which also included interacting with other athletes and watching other sports, put her fourth-place finish in perspective.
“These other athletes truly only get once every four years for their major championships,” she said.
As for golf, “At the time, I thought that winning a major was over winning an Olympic medal,” she said. “After being there, I don’t think you can compare the two.”
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