PINEHURST, N.C. – Lucy Li is going to have a doozy of a story for the first day of school when her sixth-grade teacher asks what she did this summer.
Li, an 11-year-old from Redwood Shores, Calif., is the youngest ever to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Open. She has been prepping here for two weeks already, the first of the 156-player field to register for the championship, and has met the likes of Webb Simpson, her favorite player, Annika Sorenstam and Anna Nordquist.
How did the precocious golfer, who is too young to compete in an AJGA event, earn a spot in the biggest event in women’s golf? On May 19 at Half Moon Bay (Calif.) Golf Links’ Old Course, Li shot 74-68 for an even-par total of 142 to earn medalist honors by seven strokes in a sectional qualifier. Afterwards, she celebrated with dinner at her favorite restaurant and a trip to the movie theater to see “The Amazing Spider Man 2.”
The word “prodigy” is as overused and devalued in our society as the word “amazing.” Li seems to merit both. A year ago, she became the youngest to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Amateur and the youngest to make it to match play at the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship. In April, she won her age group in the inaugural Drive, Chip and Putt competition at Augusta National. She got hooked to the game at age 7, tagging along to the driving range with her brother, now a student at Princeton University, who played on his high school golf team. When Li joined TGA Golf Club of Northern California in 2011, her handicap was 8.0. She’s currently a +1.5, and takes lessons from Jim McLean at his academy at Trump Doral Resort in Miami. Can Li’s father beat her, she was asked? Li’s head snapped back as she broke into laughter.
“No,” she said, giggling some more, and a roomful of reporters laughed with her.
It’s natural to assume that Li may have been pushed onto the big stage by her parents, but that doesn’t seem to be the case. When asked whose idea it was to try to qualify for the Women’s Open, she answered, “It was mine. Because I wanted to go out there and get the experience. Because it’s 36 holes and I didn’t care if I qualified or not, I didn’t think about it, I just wanted to go for the experience.”
Bryan Bush, her caddie, called her the “history maker,” but is she too young to be making history? Jim Furyk, the 2003 U.S. Open champion, didn’t play in a golf tournament until he was 12 and the parent in him expressed concern about potential burnout.
“I saw a couple kids that I grew up with that seemed to be every bit as good as me, and by the time I got to 17 years old, they didn’t play golf anymore. They were done,” he said. “Now that I’m a parent and I have a 10‑year‑old and almost 12, I don’t know what the hell I would do with a child that was that good at 11 and where you would direct them? That’s what would scare me the most.”
Li displayed the poise needed to handle Pinehurst No. 2 when she had a roomful of reporters hinged on her every word at her very own press conference. But not everyone is sold that an 11-year-old playing against a world-class field is a good idea. Count Rolex World No. 1 Stacy Lewis among those who appreciate Li’s talent but think it’s all happening too soon for her.
“I just like to see kids learn how to win before they come get beat up out here,” Lewis said. “When I found out she qualified, I said, ‘Well where does she go from here? What do you do next?’ . . . If it was my kid, I wouldn’t let her play in the U.S. Open qualifier at 11, but that’s just me.”
Li is eight months younger than Lexi Thompson was when she played the 2007 U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles, and Thompson recalled practicing her autograph on the drive to Southern Pines, N.C.
“It was pretty overwhelming,” said Thompson, now 19, who won the Kraft Nabisco Championship in April, before adding, “My experience at age 12 helped me out so much.”
Li is younger than Michelle Wie was when Wie made her Women’s Open debut at age 13. This week, Wie, now 24, will be making her 11th appearance.
“She’s so cute and tiny,” Wie said of Li. “I was like, ‘Was I that cute?’ And they were like, ‘No, you were ginormous.’ ”
Li is 5 foot 2 inches and weighs less than 100 pounds. She wore pig tails and fluorescent yellow and pink barrettes in her hair. She enjoys dancing, swimming, diving, and badminton, too. But her favorite activity is reading, particularly Sherlock Holmes. She’s a bit of a history buff, and impressed her caddie by knowing that Donald Ross, Pinehurst’s famed architect, built the greens at No. 2 to repel the golf ball not to receive them.
“I know that he loves doing those undulating greens,” she said.
Does he ever. Li got a look at those greens on Tuesday. She teed off at 8:57 a.m. on the back nine for a practice round with three-time LPGA winner Beatriz Recari. Li’s white, Zebra print shirt with green sequins sparkled almost as much as her game.
“It’s insane,” said 14-year-old Cody Stokes, who served as Li’s standard-bearer. “She hits it farther than I do.”
And how far does she hit it? “My drive goes about like 230,” Li said. “It goes farther in tournaments when there’s adrenaline. I hit my 5-iron like 170.”
Having seen Li’s game, Recari does not think the 11-year-old will be overmatched when the tournament begins.
“She’s fearless,” Recari said. “I don’t think she’s afraid of hitting woods into the greens.”
Nor is Li concerned about playing in front of a large crowd. In fact, she made it sound as if she welcomes the attention. “I just want to go out there and have fun and play the best I can and I really don’t care about the outcome, it’s just I want to have fun and learn. I can learn – I want to learn a lot from these great players.”
One of those greats, 50-year-old Laura Davies, said age is just a number.
“If you’re good enough, you’re old enough. Or young enough. Whichever way you look at it,” she said. “If you can play the golf and you can qualify, then have a go. What’s the worst that can happen? She shoots a million this week and everyone says, ‘Wasn’t it great she was here?’ So I don’t think anything bad can come out of it, because she’s too young to worry about the pressure.”
She may be 11, but Li appears to be wise beyond her years. She dreamed big, earned her place, and has portrayed the perfect attitude.
“The game’s going to take me wherever it’s going to take me,” she said.
On Thursday, the journey begins at 7:07 a.m., at No. 10 tee. Her caddie, for one, won’t be surprised if Li makes the cut.
“Oh no,” Bush said, “We’ll be here on Saturday.”