Lucy Li was 7 years old when her parents phoned Jim McLean about giving her lessons. McLean’s initial reaction: That’s a little too young.
The family flew from California to Miami to meet McLean at Doral. He watched her hit balls, and soon after an arrangement was made that Li’s aunt would stay with her during the winter months so she could train with McLean and his assistants in Florida.
No one could imagine that four years later, Li would become the youngest player to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Open at age 11. Li shot 74-68 at the par-71 Half Moon Bay (Calif.) Old Course to win the 36-hole qualifier by seven strokes.
Get this: Li qualified for the U.S. Women’s Open before making it into a U.S. Girls’ Junior.
“She’s really got the entire package,” said McLean, who started working with Cristie Kerr when she was 13 and Lexi Thompson at age 8.
Thompson held the previous record (12 years, 4 months, 18 days in 2007) as youngest to qualify for the USWO. She, of course, had won an LPGA event by age 16 and clinched her first major at this year’s Kraft Nabisco Championship.
Morgan Pressel kick-started this kid-qualifying in 2001 when she advanced as a 12-year-old. There must be something to prodigies playing in Pinehurst, N.C. Both Pressel and Thompson qualified for the USWO at Pine Needles. Li will enter the spotlight June 19-22 on Pinehurst Resort’s No. 2 course.
McLean encouraged Li to compete in USGA qualifiers at age 10 for the competition, never expecting her to actually get in the fields. She outperformed his expectations last summer by qualifying for both the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links and U.S. Women’s Amateur. Li advanced to Round 1 of match play at the WAPL but missed the cut at the Amateur.
After opening with an 80 last August in Charleston, Li called McLean and told him the course was too big, too difficult for her. McLean asked Li if she played her best, could she go out and shoot 76 in the second round? Li said yes, and then posted a 70.
McLean is as aware as everyone that the USWO is a massive step above a women’s amateur event. Simply being there is a victory in itself for the sixth-grader.
At 5-foot-2, McLean said Li hits it around 230 off the tee. They spend much of their time together on the golf course every couple of weeks, with two of McLean’s assistants working with her day-to-day in the winter. McLean believes Li will do OK around Donald Ross’ demanding No. 2. He’s not predicting she’ll make the cut, but she won’t embarrass herself either.
Like any of his young talents, McLean likes to give kids space to self-discover. When asked if anything about Li is similar to what he saw in Thompson, McLean said a fierce determination and love for the game.
“They have an inner fire,” he said. “They push themselves.”
Lee’s mother, Amy, was a ping pong champion in China. McLean once tried to get Phil Mickelson to take her on, but then revealed Amy’s resume.
Apparently success runs in the family.
The USGA said Li is currently unavailable for comment because, naturally, she’s in school.