Stacy Lewis has worked tirelessly over her career to embrace the overwhelming support in her adopted state of Arkansas.
The recovering introvert finally found a way to do so while overcoming her self-imposed pressure Sunday — shooting a 6-under 65 and rallying for a much-sought after official win in the NW Arkansas Championship.
Lewis earned an unofficial rain-shortened win at the tournament as an amateur in 2007, but she had struggled to match that effort since as her popularity — and ranking — soared.
She earned $300,000 for her third LPGA Tour victory of the year, but more importantly the 11-time winner earned a welcomed sigh of relief in front of a college-like atmosphere full of fans cheering for the former four-time All-American at Arkansas.
"When I first came here to school, I was extremely shy, and I think I've definitely grown out of that over the years," Lewis said. "... I've just found that the more I interact with fans, it makes me more relaxed, and enjoying it more is what I'm trying to do."
The top-ranked and native Texan secured the one-stroke win with a 7-foot birdie putt on the final hole at Pinnacle Country Club. The putt capped a stretch of three birdies over her final four holes, helping the two-time major winner finish at 12-under 201 — one shot ahead of 17-year-old Lydia Ko, Cristie Kerr and Angela Stanford.
Kerr had a chance to match Lewis at 12 under with a 30-foot birdie putt on the 18th. However, her putt came up short.
Then, after So Yeon Ryu failed to make an eagle on the final hole, Lewis' win was secured. Ryu ended up fifth at 10 under after a 69.
Lewis' final putt resulted in a huge ovation from the pro-Arkansas gallery as well as a fist pump and sigh of relief from the local favourite. Her after-party inside Pinnacle Country Club included a hug from Arkansas women's golf coach Shauna Estes-Taylor, among others, and chants of "Stacy's No. 1."
"This place just means so much to me," Lewis said. "So, to win here, it's just crazy how far I've come ... It's just really, really special to win here."
Michelle Wie began the final round with a two-shot lead after back-to-back 5-under 66s, but she missed short birdie putts on the first two holes and struggled to a 1-over front nine — capped by a three-putt bogey on the ninth.
She finished with a 73 on Sunday to tie for eighth at 8 under.
The whirlwind media tour following last week's win at the U.S. Women's Open appeared to finally catch up with Wie, who followed her bogey on No. 9 with bogeys on Nos. 10 and 11 to effectively end her contention. She finished with 35 putts after needing 28 the first round and 29 in the second.
With Wie coming back to the field, several players climbed up the leaderboard and into contention on the back nine — with Lewis, Ko, Kerr and Stanford part of a four-way tie atop the leaderboard at one point.
Kerr was a group behind Lewis and had chances to take the lead, but she left birdie putts short on the par-3 17th and final hole. She and Stanford finished with final-round 67s, while Ko shot 65 to be a part of the threesome that earned $141,128 for second place.
"It didn't go wrong, it just didn't go right enough," Kerr said.
Lewis won the Shoprite Classic this month as well as the North Texas Shootout in May.
Lewis was tied for the lead entering the final round last year before finishing in a tie for fourth, but her final birdie spree finally secured her sought-after win Sunday.
"(Lewis) is playing some awesome golf," Ko said. "...She's having consistent top 10s like Michelle, and I think it's great that we're playing in her hometown, and the best thing is she's world No. 1 and they're proud to say it."
Lewis began the tournament 2 over after her first four holes Friday, but she closed by shooting 14 under over her final 68 holes.
She took advantage of the opening with Wie's stumble and vaulted into the solo lead at 11 under with a birdie on the par-4 16th.
Ko and Kerr answered with birdies to climb back to part of a three-way tie at 11 under, but Lewis had the last answer — a 7-foot left-to-right birdie putt on No. 18. It was one of only 25 putts on Sunday for Lewis, who needed only 24 in the second round.
It was just the start of the celebration for Lewis and her legion of Arkansas fans.
"That's why I play," Lewis said.