ROGERS — Suzann Pettersen is the No. 3 ranked LPGA player in the world, according to the Rolex Rankings.
Her ultimate goal is to climb to No. 1. But the Norwegian realizes that this week’s opportunity to move up at least one spot to No. 2 in the Rolex Rankings at the NW Arkansas Championship could come with consequences.
“If I were to knock Stacy (Lewis) down this week, I probably won’t be too popular coming back here, I think,” Pettersen said Thursday.
That’s because the NW Arkansas Championship, for all intents and purposes, belongs to Lewis and the hometown favorite will try to reward the throngs of fans who will pour into Pinnacle Country Club to support her this week with a championship. Lewis, the No. 2 player in the world, will begin her quest this afternoon at 1:36 p.m., when she tees off with Morgan Pressel and Angela Stanford.
It’s the first of three rounds at the tournament, which is in its seventh year in Northwest Arkansas. Lewis is unofficially recognized as the inaugural winner after being on top of the leader board during the rain-shortened event in 2007.
She hopes to stand there again — this time after a full 54 holes and three days — when the 2013 champion is crowned Sunday afternoon.
“This tournament, it’s right behind a major championship,” Lewis said after playing a pro am round Thursday. “It’s my biggest event that I want to win beside a major.”
There’s no doubt Lewis has the credentials to accomplish it in a professional career that has taken off the past few years. Lewis currently sits at No. 2 in the Rolex Rankings behind Inbee Park, but has spent time at No. 1 this year.
Overall, Lewis has seven LPGA event titles to her name, including one major (the Kraft Nabisco Championship in 2011), since turning pro. She won the Rolex Player of the Year award last season after four victories and 12 other top 10 finishes. It has helped Lewis become the face of American women’s golf, producing more substance on the course than other fan favorites like Michelle Wie and Natalie Gulbis.
“She’s a great player,” said Park, who had been in a back-and-forth battle with Lewis before moving into the top spot in April. “She has great ball striking. She’s a great ball striker. She hits the ball much further than me. I think she’s a very good player.”
Success hasn’t come in Rogers, though, since turning pro. Lewis’ best finish at Pinnacle Country Club was a tie for eighth place in 2011. She has had two top 10 finishes in five tries and finished tied for 19th at the event last year.
Lewis admitted Thursday to putting too much pressure on herself to impress the home fans, who will surely be calling the Hogs when the former Razorback walks the course this week. But she has learned some valuable lessons with her recent successes, getting a better understanding of how to deal with the pressure of constantly being on center stage and is hopeful it will produce different results.
“The last few years I definitely put a lot of pressure on myself,” Lewis said. “I really, really wanted to play well. I’ve learned from becoming No. 1 and over these last few months that you can’t play that way. You’ve just got to go out there and take care of every shot. You can’t control what everybody else is doing. I feel like I have less pressure on myself. I’m putting less pressure on myself this year.”
Lewis is hopeful her golf game is up to the task as well this week.
She opened the year on a tear, winning twice (HSBC Women’s Championship and the LPGA Founders Cup) and finishing in the top 10 eight times in 10 events. It helped propel her to No. 1 in the world, but Lewis has struggled of late.
Lewis posted 27th-, 58th- , and 28th-place finishes in her last three events. Park, meanwhile, has added two wins since late April and has four total in 11 events this season. Lewis admitted Thursday that Park’s dominance has overshadowed her own success this season, but is hopeful her final-round 70 at the Wegman’s LPGA event earlier this month is a sign of big things to come.
“Golf, you play in cycles,” said Lewis, who has squeezed in some extra time with her coach leading up to this week’s tournament. “You play good for a few weeks and then you play bad for a few weeks. That’s just the way it works.
“I’m just trying to get back on that upswing again at the right time.”
Lewis also was asked about the value of managing her emotions, calling it her biggest “nemesis” on the course.
Improvement is her goal in front of the home crowd this week and beyond with the season’s next major — the U.S. Women’s Open — coming next week.
“I actually took something from watching Justin Rose win the U.S. Open,” Lewis said. “When he made a birdie, he was happy. But he didn’t get overly excited about it. When he made bogey, he had probably the same reaction. That’s how you win major championships. That’s how you win big tournaments is keeping those emotions steady whether it’s good or bad. … That’s my biggest goal is how level can I stay.”
This week’s tournament isn’t a major for the rest of the field, which includes 98 of the world’s top 100 ranked players. Lewis said it feels that way to her, though, because of her ties to the area and the backing she’ll get from Arkansas fans.
Naturally, there’s a lot of pressure to produce with a tournament victory.
The next three days will determine whether it finally becomes a reality for Lewis, but Pettersen said one thing already is clear: the hometown star can handle it.
“Stacy has become a phenomenal player and obviously she’s a major favorite here in Arkansas,” Pettersen said about Lewis’ growth as a professional golfer. “I feel like she’s in good control of her time management. I think she’s structured enough to know how to structure her day, to feel like she can prepare, get teed up to be in competitive mode. And, like I said, she has every aspect of the game. So obviously coming here playing in front of a home crowd probably will only help her.”