As the spring season progresses, Golfweek is monitoring the race for the inaugural Annika Award. An award update will be posted each Friday on Golfweek.com.
• • •
Back home in Beijing, it was rare for Yu Liu to get to practice on real grass. She hit off mats on crowded driving ranges near her downtown home and struggled to find quality greens for short-game practice. What a difference a year – and a move – makes.
Liu, a Duke freshman, has been one of the immediate success stories of this season. She’s the No. 2 player in Golfweek’s rankings, and the leading scorer on a young Blue Devil team. A playoff victory March 9 at the Darius Rucker Intercollegiate gave Liu her first collegiate hardware. She dropped a long birdie putt to end sudden death with LSU freshman Caroline Nistrup after one hole.
“I’m surprised,” Liu said of her quick adjustment to college golf, “because as a player coming straight from China, I didn’t expect myself to adjust that well. I’m very glad to be able to accomplish so much.”
Liu sits atop Golfstat’s rankings with the best head-to-head record in the country. She’s a gifted player whose voice comes across the phone line with a calmness that downplays her accomplishments.
At the Darius Rucker, Liu was fourth after the second round but turned in 3-under 33 on the final day to work her way toward the top. A bogey at No. 13 and a double bogey at No. 14 could stalled out that mometum but Liu regrouped with a birdie at No. 15.
“I always see myself as a pretty consistent player,” Liu said. “I didn’t expect that bogey, double to happen at all. It was like a relief for me because I knew I was in the lead before that and after that I was just trying to play more aggressively and be more confident out there.”
So far this season, Liu has finished T-9, sixth, second, T-3 and now first. She has thrived on an international Duke roster that includes fellow Chinese player Yi Xiao plus teammates from Israel, France, Colombia, Canada and, of course, California.
Liu has been playing competitively in the U.S. during the summers since she was 13 years old, always with the goal of securing a college golf scholarship. She works with Andrew Park at the David Leadbetter Academy, and is part of China’s recent explosion of young golf talent – inspired, like many, by Shanshan Feng’s 2012 Wegmans LPGA Championship victory (it was the first LPGA title for a Chinese player).
“I just feel like the dream of winning the highest level tournaments became closer to me,” Liu said of that victory. “It’s more reachable. It motivated me to practice harder and to achieve that dream.”
Last fall, Liu played in the LPGA Reignwood Classic in Beijing, where Feng won again. Liu, who finished 73rd, heard the cheers for the beloved Feng from the clubhouse.
In college golf, Liu is becoming a similarly recognizable name. She credits the majority of that growth to being able to practice more efficiently at Duke’s golf facilities. Liu also describes the qualifying process that leads up to each event Duke enters. It’s hardly cake to make the Blue Devil lineup.
“I feel like college women’s golf is really competitive right now,” she said. “To me, I’m just going to try to focus on my own game just to keep practicing hard and play some good golf.”
• • •
Other notable players and performances:
Annie Park, USC
- Golfweek/Sagarin ranking: 1
- In a few words… USC didn’t play this week, but Park secured two prestigious invitations in the last five days: An exemption into the LPGA’s Kraft Nabisco Championship and selection to the U.S. Curtis Cup team.
• • •
Alison Lee, UCLA
- Golfweek/Sagarin ranking: 3
- In a few words… UCLA had a week off too, but Lee also got the calls for a Kraft exemption and a Curtis Cup spot.
• • •
Stephanie Meadow, Alabama
- Golfweek/Sagarin ranking: 4
- In a few words… Meadow was only one shot off the pace at the Darius Rucker Intercollegiate after an opening 67 (the best round of the tournament from any competitor) put her in position.
• • •
Caroline Nistrup, LSU
- Golfweek/Sagarin ranking: 13
- In a few words… Has put herself in contention time and time again this season. Nistrup lost the Darius Rucker playoff to Liu, but the Denmark native is overdue for a big college victory. She will be very tough to beat at home when the LSU Tiger Classic begins March 21.