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Lewis leads, has a chance at history

Times Staff Writer

EDINA, Minn. -- Four years ago, the player who is leading the U.S. Women’s Open wasn’t sure whether her golf career was going to even happen. Back surgery for scoliosis can make a person wonder about a lot, but 23-year-old Stacy Lewis is answering all the questions so far.

Lewis, a rookie playing in her first pro tournament and who had to qualify to play this week, is an unqualified success, with a one-shot lead over Paula Creamer and only today’s last 18 holes separating her from a chance to make history.

Lewis’ third round of six-under-par 67, accomplished in the midst of weather delays, wind and raindrops Saturday at Interlachen Country Club, vaulted her into some rarefied air.

If Lewis wins, it is believed that she will be the first player in the history of golf to win a major in her first event as a pro.

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That’s a long way from when Lewis had to take a year off from playing golf at the University of Arkansas after back surgery. She had a rod and five screws put in her back in a surgical procedure to correct an abnormal lateral curvature of the spine.

At the time, she worried her golf career was over.

“I think when I found out that I had to have surgery, I thought I was done playing golf forever.

“I just wanted to play golf. I just wanted to qualify for my team. I didn’t think I’d win any tournaments. I didn’t think about any of that. I just wanted to get back out there and play again.”

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From the time she was 11, Lewis wore a thick plastic back brace for 7 1/2 years, 18 hours a day, but during her senior year in high school, her doctors found it wasn’t working and she had surgery.

Afterward, Lewis wore another brace for three months, and couldn’t bend or twist or lift more than five pounds for six months.

“But then after six months, I was free to swing away, do whatever I wanted to do. I have days when it’s sore and when it hurts, but nothing major.”

Creamer’s four-under 69 put her closest to Lewis, and near what would be her first major title.

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“This is what I’ve always said, as long as I put myself in position on Sunday, that’s all you can do,” Creamer said.

Helen Alfredsson and Inbee Park are two shots back at seven under 212. The only others within four shots of Lewis are In-Kyung Kim, whose 69 moved her from a tie for 17th to fifth, and Mi Hyun Kim, who had a three-under 70.

While a great deal was expected this week from Lorena Ochoa, she struggled again, this time with a 76, and is tied for 43rd at four over 223.

Meanwhile, Lewis was borderline giddy. She needed only 23 putts, kept her round going with a clutch 15-foot uphill par-saving putt at the 10th and said she’s not really nervous because she’s been planning something like this for a long time.

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“Truthfully, I’m not really that surprised,” she said. “I felt like I could play at this level and compete at this level. It was kind of my goal to put myself into contention to win going into the last day.”

Lewis wasn’t exactly an unknown at Arkansas. She won the 2007 NCAA title and was 5-0 when she led the U.S. to a victory in the Curtis Cup in May.

“I think the Curtis Cup gave me more confidence, knowing I could hit shots under pressure. That’s probably the most pressure I’ve ever played.”

But she really has a shot at making a name for herself today.

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Lewis turned pro June 9, the day she qualified at Eastern Hills Country Club in Garland, Texas.

“I only play in golf tournaments to win,” she said. “I’m not here to make the cut or finish top 10 or do any of that. I’m here to win. People might see that as arrogant, but I think if you’re not here to win, you’re never going to be successful.”

Annika Sorenstam’s goal is to walk away from her 15th U.S. Open with a smile, but it’s going to be difficult to grin if she doesn’t figure out what’s going wrong on the greens.

She’s seven shots behind Lewis after her third-round 72, she bogeyed the 17th hole for the third straight day and also failed to birdie the 18th, even though she reached in two for the second day in a row.

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Sorenstam needed 32 putts in the third round, and her total of 98 is 17 more than Lewis’.

When she talked about her putting problems Saturday, Sorenstam seemed close to losing it.

“I’m about to cry,” Sorenstam said. “When you do everything you can and then it just doesn’t happen, I cannot hit the ball any better, I cannot put myself in a better position and I really don’t know what to do. It just does not happen.”

It didn’t happen for Park, either. The 36-hole leader faded to a 75 and is five shots behind Lewis. That may be too much to overcome, but Park would be a special U.S. Open champion -- she became a U.S. citizen this month in a naturalization ceremony at Staples Center.

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Last year, when she won the LPGA’s rookie-of-the-year award, Park made her acceptance speech in three languages -- Portuguese, Korean and English.

Park was born in Brazil, where her South Korean parents had taken a business opportunity, but the family moved to California when she was 9 and Park became a star on the Torrance High School girls’ team.

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thomas.bonk@latimes.com

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