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It's survival of the fittest<br> Only 19 golfers able to break par

Her golf bio suggests that Stacy Lewis has lived the life of a golf prodigy, that success on the LPGA Tour was assured her long ago. Lewis played at the University of Arkansas on scholarship. She placed first at LPGA Qualifying School in 2009.

View that snapshot and one might conclude that golf has always been Lewis's destiny. Truth is, just a few years back it was feared Lewis might never again play a casual round, let alone compete against the best female players in the world.

At age 11 Lewis was fitted with a back brace designed to correct severe curvature of her spine. She wore the brace when she slept and when she ate, when she attended school and when she hung out at home. About the only time it came off was when Lewis hit the course to hone her golf game.

Despite her diligence, the spine failed to reshape as hoped. Doctors suggested surgery, and before her freshman season at Arkansas Lewis had a titanium rod and five screws implanted to straighten her spine. Never mind golf. There was some concern whether she'd retain full use of her legs.

If only all surgeries could provide such drastic improvement and profound reassurance. Lewis went on to win the 2008 NCAA individual title. Then she became the only player in the 76-year history of the Curtis Cup to play in five matches and win them all. Once again, joining the sport's elite appears part of her destiny, and a victory at this week's LPGA Championship at Locust Hill certainly would propel her into the realm of the elite.

Lewis signaled that she's once again a force to reckon with in a major by shooting a 4-under par 68 to gain a share of the first-round lead on a blustery Thursday spiced with sun, sprinkles and downpours. A blitz of four birdies over the final seven holes (she finished on the front nine) hurtled Lewis up the leader board and once again positioned her for a shot at a major title.

Joining her at 68 were fellow American Cristie Kerr, in search of her second career major, and South Korean Seon Hwa Lee. Numerous Americans are in the hunt, including three tied for 11th at 71: Juli Inkster, Paula Creamer and Brittany Lincicome, winner of last year's Kraft Nabisco Championship. Another shot back were Michelle Wie, Morgan Pressel and Natalie Gulbis.

The fact only 19 players broke par reflected the difficulty of the challenge. Fairways have been tightened and holes lengthened since last year's Wegman's LPGA, a non-major.

"I think the golf course is definitely harder than in the past few years," Lee said. "They moved the tee box a lot, six of seven holes. If I'm not in the fairway, the rough is really long and thick. It's really hard to hit a fairway on this golf course."

"It was windy out there and the wind was switching around today so we weren't able to tell which way the wind was coming because it would change when we set up," said South Korean Inbee Park, a shot back at 69.

Lewis put it together with a back-nine run and has had a taste of major contention. She placed third in the 2008 U.S Women's Open after sleeping on the third-round lead. Then she struggled in '09, her first full LPGA season.

"I'm a lot happier than I was last year at this point," she said. "I finished 16th and 13th the last two weeks. It's just been really solid and so much more consistent. It's just more relaxing to play, and I am having more fun. I knew some good rounds were coming. I just needed a few good putts to fall. It was kind of just a matter of time."

Lewis struck for an eagle on her second hole, the 11th, by holing a 50-degree wedge from 86 yards. She gave those strokes back to par when drives in the penal rough resulted in bogeys at Nos. 13 and 16. The putts she had been waiting to drop found the bottom of the cup for birdie on Nos, 3, 4, 5 and 9, although none was longer than 10 feet.

Lewis is familiar with Locust Hill and has fond memories on which to draw. She finished tied for fourth here last year, before the tournament became a major, shooting a season-low 67 during the second round. She could be primed to score that first career victory so long as the back holds up.

"It's been great this year," Lewis said. "I haven't had any problems, knock on wood. I haven't been in the [treatment] trailer at all this year, so it's been really good. You know you go from a place where you're not sure whether you are going to swing a golf club again. I think every day you just get to play, you are that much more appreciative of it."

e-mail: bdicesare@buffnews.com

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>Leaders

Stacy Lewis 68    

Seon Hwa Lee 68    

Cristie Kerr 68    

Inbee Park 69    

Mika Miyazato 69    

Lindsey Wright 69    

H. Bowie Young 70    

Louise Stahle 70    

Teresa Lu 70    

Christina Kim 70    

>Notables    

Juli Inkster 71    

Paula Creamer 71    

Natalie Gulbis 72    

Morgan Pressel 72    

Michelle Wie 72    

Nancy Lopez 87