It was a telling lesson. Observing the participants at a junior golf event in Bradenton, Florida this past weekend was, for moms and dads pushing 50, like taking an advanced course in social anthropology.
On the golf course, the children behaved like any group of competitors. Even the youngest ones conducted themselves with appropriate poise. But once the scorecards were signed and all the trophies had been awarded, the contestants transformed back into kids: laughing, chatting, texting, eating, and doing everything in their power to steer clear of their oh-so-uncool parents.
But something fascinating happened after that. In the grill room, many of the girls ages 11 through 18 gathered by the television to watch the final few holes of the LPGA Mobile Bay Classic where Stacy Lewis and Lexi Thompson battled down the stretch.
The adults assumed the girls would pull for Lexi. How could they not? Lexi was one of them, a 17-year-old planning her prom and learning to drive.
But that wasn’t the case at all. An overwhelming majority of the kids rooted and cheered for Stacy Lewis, the dry, 27-year-old Texan with the bashful smile.
When Stacy made a birdie on the sixteenth to take a one-shot lead, fists went in the air and a high-pitched whoop echoed through the dining room. Two holes later, when the winning putt went in the hole, one 11-year-old said of Stacy, "She’s like Katniss."
More than a few adults had to hit the nearest search engine to learn that "Katniss" was a reference to the main character in the "Hunger Games" series, a young heroine who overcomes enormous obstacles to prevail without losing her compassion or her humanity.
Better than any marketing or PR firm, that 11-year-old encapsulated the Stacy Lewis story, and hit on why she attracts so much interest and enthusiasm everywhere she goes.
An ordinary girl from The Woodlands outside Houston, Stacy spent seven and a half years wearing a brace for scoliosis. She wasn’t a gifted athlete; not extraordinarily tall or strong or talented. She was a wallflower in a long dress with a contraption around her torso holding her spine in place.
"I saw so many doctors and I came home crying every time, because I was still wearing that stupid back brace," Stacy told me on Tuesday as she was coming off a whirlwind couple of days after her win. "I thought I was the only one in the world who had scoliosis. None of my friends had it, and nobody I knew had to wear a brace like me. I was always saying 'Why is this happening to me?'
"That’s one of the reasons I’m so open with my story. I don’t want kids to be in the position that I was in. I want them to realize that it’s okay. You can go on and do what you want to do. Whatever you’re facing, you don’t have to be scared."
That story and that attitude – genuine, humble and compassionate – are why the young girls in Bradenton, and young women around the country, pull for Stacy Lewis.
Lexi Thompson, while a wonderful young lady, is a phenom, an athlete of almost supernatural skill with size, speed, and maturity well beyond her years. Most girls admire her, but they can’t relate to her.
Stacy is none of that. She is average in every way but one: she has the heart and will of a lioness. And because of that, she is the woman little girls want to be.
"It’s unbelievable that all I do is play golf and all these kids look up to me," Stacy said. "A lot of it is my personality and the way I play golf, too. Nothing has ever come easy to me. I continue to fight. I never give up. That’s the way I am in everything I do. It made me who I am."
It helped make her the soon-to-be top-ranked American woman in the world (Cristie Kerr will hold the spot for a few more days because of a quirk in the Rolex system, but Stacy will move up by the middle of May). She is also a player her peers respect and admire like no other. When Rosie Jones asked her Solheim Cup team members who they wanted to be paired with, the top name on the list was Stacy Lewis.
"It's a compliment," she said. "For your peers to tell you congratulations and that you’re playing well and you’ve gotten a lot better, that’s the ultimate."
As great as the accolades are from her fellow players, they don’t touch Stacy the way the letters do from children all over the country. "It’s crazy the letters I get," she said. "They’re so moving."
So is she. That is why those in the game need to recognize and embrace this unlikely heroine. One of the tenants of the Golf 2.0 initiative is to use the star power of our tour players to grow the game. In order to do that, we have to understand who the real stars are, and why.
"My message to kids is simple" Stacy said. "Never give up. Persevere. Things might seem really bad right now, and you don’t know how you’re going to get through it, but if you just keep working hard and do what you’re supposed to do, things will get better. I know. I’ve been there."
It doesn’t get any better than that.