Sporting Life

Lewis out to be 2nd to none despite many runner-up finishes

Stacy Lewis is polite but clear: she doesn't want to talk about it. She'd rather not. And yet she does, perhaps because she has steel. Metaphorically and literally. Five pins and a rod inserted in her back to keep her spine straight. So she'll talk about second place if you wish, the second place where she keeps finishing, the second place which is proof of consistency and yet the second place we've turned into a sin.

"It's not a bad thing," Lewis, in joint-22nd place at the HSBC Women's Champions, says of second place and it's a pity she even has to say that. But in a weird planet, obsessed with No. 1, every other position can be viewed as second-rate.

Winning is the end goal but since when did second become shabby? Yet a shoe manufacturer once coined a line which read: "You don't win silver, you lose gold" and a racing car driver, overcome by testosterone, apparently remarked "second place is just the first place loser". Maybe they've never met that Nicklaus fellow who in Majors had 18 first places and 19 seconds.

But second is far more fascinating than a glib line. Its sheer proximity to first can kindle frustration and yet also awaken hope. It can be luck refusing to kiss you, it could be opportunity scorned, and it's also proof you're on the right track. It must leave athletes feeling grateful, wondering, privileged and cursed.

Lewis, 32, plays to win but it's not the position that probably offends her as much as the accumulation of second places. In the second half of 2014, the year she last won an LPGA tournament, she had two second places. In 2015, she had six second places. In 2016, three second places. Victory has turned elusive.

But Lewis knows challenge, she's met struggle, she's well-versed in courage. Afflicted with scoliosis, which is a curvature of the spine, she had to have those screws inserted. Before the operation she was asked to sign a consent form which noted that she could be paralysed. If you can manage the possibility of never walking, you can handle a second-place streak.

American Stacy Lewis battling the elements during the second round of the HSBC Women's Champions. The 2013 champion carded a one-over 73 yesterday, after a 68 on Thursday.
American Stacy Lewis battling the elements during the second round of the HSBC Women’s Champions. The 2013 champion carded a one-over 73 yesterday, after a 68 on Thursday. ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Lewis' runner-up finishes are intriguing because coming first was once second nature to her... You might say that at least she's seen first place unlike others stuck forever at second; you might argue that second must hurt because she once knew how to get to first.

Second-place can hound athletes like a mean jinx. Some shake it off, like Ivan Lendl, who lost his first four Grand Slam finals but then won eight of his next 14. Others, in major events, find their karma impossible to rewrite. Jimmy White was a six-time runner-up at the world snooker championships, Frankie Fredericks won only silver in four Olympic sprints (100m and 200m twice) and swimmer Shirley Babashoff collected five individual silvers in two Olympics.

But Lewis' runner-up finishes are intriguing because coming first was once second nature to her.

She's won 11 LPGA titles, including two Majors, been No. 1 on two occasions and Player of the Year twice, won US$11,523,947 (S$16,292,556) and had 97 top 10s. You might say that at least she's seen first place unlike others stuck forever at second; you might argue that second must hurt because she once knew how to get to first.

"Probably two years ago when it kind of first was happening... when you've been winning and you finish second, it's frustrating," Lewis explains. "Now, looking back on it, I've played some really good golf over the last two years. It is frustrating not to win but I've also played great."

She pauses. "If you see second place as a negative thing then your career is going to be pretty short."

Second place can be grating because when a tournament is done the cameras abruptly shift from you and so does the conversation. This is where golf makes you grow and hands you perspective. This is when you want to kick your bag and yet swear to keep pushing.

"The fact that it is frustrating is a good thing," she says. "Some people finish second and they think it's a great week and they move on. I think you want to be a little frustrated but at same time you have to look back and say I played really well."

Her story exemplifies the journeys that athletes make, the disappointments they wear, the tussles in their minds, the flows of fortune. It speaks to their commitment to grind and also to the wondrous depth of their faith.

"You look at those couple of years that I won Player of the Year," she says of 2012 and 2014, " and things just kind of seem to go your way. Stuff happens at the end. Somebody else makes a mistake, you hole a putt and all of sudden you win. Then sometimes you hole every putt you need to and you lose. It's just the way the game goes."

Now, every day, whatever the score, Lewis tries to extract a "positive" from her golf. Searching for victory and yet grateful for being able to chase it at all, a golfer proud of who she is and yet in devoted pursuit of better times.

"One day," says Lewis, who won the HSBC title here in 2013 , "the tide has to turn your way. You hit enough golf shots and play enough rounds and you're going to get the right bounce one of these days".

First place is out there. She knows it. She can smell it. Somewhere, some day. All she needs is a second wind.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 04, 2017, with the headline 'Lewis out to be 2nd to none despite many runner-up finishes'. Print Edition | Subscribe