J.L. Lewis passes away at age 59
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Written by Jim McCabe @PGATOUR
Against a backdrop of sports stories so often built around athletes in the phenom mold, J.L. Lewis was always an easy embrace if you preferred your players to be studies in resiliency. In a fitting description written in 2003, Doug Smith of the American-Statesmen in Austin, Texas, said that Lewis was “one of those overnight success stories that was about 20 years in the making.”
Lewis not only approved of that description, he had a profound sense of pride in the long and arduous road that made it accurate, and the way in which he handled the ups and downs of a pro golf career that included 626 tournaments from 1990-2012 across the Korn Ferry Tour, PGA TOUR, and PGA TOUR Champions.
After the first of his two PGA TOUR wins, the 1999 John Deere Classic, Lewis told reporters that “I can’t even describe the hurdle I had to get over to do this,” and when a second win unfolded at the 84 Lumber Classic in 2003, he turned the spotlight where he felt it belonged, on his wife, Dawn.
“She’s been right with me all these years,” he told Smith. “She has made a lot of sacrifices for me to pursue this thing. She is now and always has been the biggest influence in my life and she is the reason for my happiness today.”
When Lewis’ nine-year struggle with multiple myeloma came to an end New Year’s Eve, Dawn was by his side along with their son, Cole, daughter Sherry Lewis-Ramirez, and other family members. In an obituary the family wrote to confirm the death of Lewis, 59, it was said that “he epitomized the essence of a PGA golf professional . . . and for the past nine years while J.L. battled cancer, he focused on teaching golf in his local community (Austin, Texas) to make a difference in the lives of golfers of all ages.”
Few of his PGA TOUR brethren bridged the playing and teaching world quite like Lewis, whose name was John Lee, but he preferred J.L. That was a byproduct of the long and colorful road he traveled to make it in the big leagues and stay there. Though he had some successes early in his career – he led Southwest Texas State to the NCAA Div. 2 Championship in 1983 and was second in the individual competition, then he captured the Austin City Championship – Lewis was like a lot of talented players who couldn’t synch his best play to when the PGA TOUR Qualifying Tournament rolled around.
So, in conjunction with Lewis’ pursuit of the PGA TOUR and several seasons on the Korn Ferry Tour, he held teaching jobs at various clubs in and around Austin, Texas, and even at Las Vegas Country Club. A proud member of the PGA of America, Lewis played passionately in whatever events he could, determined to keep his competitive juices flowing.
He and good friend Wes Short – who would win on the PGA TOUR in 2005 and has two victories on the PGA TOUR Champions – combined to shoot a final-round 59 as staff members of the Ben White Golf Center in Austin. It earned them the 1994 Southern Texas PGA team title. Later that year, Lewis made a stunning 50-foot eagle putt on the 18th hole at PGA National to help the United States beat Great Britain in the biennial PGA Cup.
Representing Perdernales Country Club at the time, a nine-holer in Austin, Lewis used the excitement of his 1-up singles win to give a shout out to his good friend and avid supporter, country music superstar Willie Nelson. The owner of Perdernales, Nelson, had he seen Lewis’ improbable heroics, “probably would have written a song,” the player mused. “And it would probably have been a hit.”
A mega hit from years earlier, Nelson’s rollicking anthem entitled “On The Road Again” could have been used as the music intro to the years 1998 to 2006 when Lewis finally achieved the PGA TOUR consistency that he had passionately pursued for years. He played the huge bulk of his 355 PGA TOUR tournaments in those years when at least 30 starts per season were the norm.
His first win came in his 114th PGA TOUR start, the 1999 John Deere Classic at Oakwood Country Club. Three behind Brian Henninger after rounds of 66-65-65, the then 39-year-old Lewis birdied the 18th hole to shoot a third straight 65, then beat Mike Brisky in a playoff.
A chance to win a second John Deere Classic was squandered in 2003, Lewis settling for a share of second behind Vijay Singh, but the very next week he authored an emphatic comeback. Forced to play 36 holes Sunday at the Mystic Rock Course at the Nemacolin Resort in Farmington, Penn., Lewis was three behind to start the day, but fell seven back with a third-round 68. Then, in soft conditions he caught fire and with a sizzling 62, Lewis passed 10 players and posted a two-stroke victory.
Lewis was 43, but if the excitement of his victory could be overshadowed by anything, it was his perspective and humility. He and Dawn had been raised in Emporia, Kan., roughly halfway between Kansas City and Wichita where blue-collar roots run deep.
“I wasn’t raised around a lot of money and some people go their entire lives and never see this much,” he said of the lavish first-place checks and comfortable life that he had earned with diligence and doggedness. “When I was 29, I didn’t think I could ever have this much.”
When in his third season on the PGA TOUR Champions, Lewis was diagnosed with cancer, he maintained that humility and perspective. The family obituary noted that Lewis was a firm believer in The First Tee and the life lessons he knew golf would provide youngsters. He had a teaching academy in Austin and a website, jllewisgolf.com.
According to the obituary, in the final month of his life, Lewis wrote: “In the past 52 years I’ve been playing or teaching golf to players of all levels and ages. What I love the most about teaching is that I’m always learning. Every day, something new emerges in terms of how to make the improvement easier for the student. Helping the student know their best swing is the number one priority . . . this is the essence of golf.”
In addition to Dawn, Cole and Sherry, Lewis is survived by three grandchildren; his father, John; and a sister.
The family said that donations can be made in honor of J.L. Lewis to The First Tee of America, the Flatwater Foundation, or the Austin chapter of the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
Jim McCabe has covered golf since 1995, writing for The Boston Globe, Golfweek Magazine, and PGATOUR.COM. Follow Jim McCabe on Twitter.