PINEHURST, N.C. – What’s more impressive: The No. 1 player in the world posts a bogey-free 67 to lead the U.S. Women’s Open, or an 11-year-old ice cream-wielding Lucy Li breaks 80 on Donald Ross’ demanding No. 2?
Tough call, but the two have been inextricably linked after Lewis questioned earlier in the week whether someone so young should be making headlines on the biggest stage in the women’s game.
The backlash was swift.
“Whether you’re 50 or 11 or 30, if you earned your spot in the Open you deserve to be here,” Lewis said after her round Thursday. “What does an 11-year-old do from here? What we’ve seen down the road is that they’re turning pro at 16, 17, 18 when sometimes the girls are ready, and most of the time they’re not.”
Lewis went on to say that while Li’s expectations might not change after this week, the expectations of those around her could and she hopes that doesn’t put too much pressure on such slight shoulders.
This situation is precisely why Lewis sought the advice of sports psychologist Stan Beecham over the offseason. Though shy growing up, Lewis never has been short on opinions. And now that she has reached No. 1 in the world, her opinions carry more weight. And no matter how thoughtful or well-intentioned Lewis might have been with her comments about Li, fans took offense.
There’s no arguing the fact that Li has been the darling of Pinehurst. She’s a charmer, and her game might rank as high as her IQ. (Li’s parents claim she has a photographic memory.)
Lewis didn’t intend to take anything away from Li’s accomplishments. But the Arkansas graduate has long been a strong advocate for winning on every level, staying four years in college (or five, in her case) and building a secure foundation for life beyond golf.
This path, of course, didn’t suit players such as Paula Creamer, Michelle Wie, Morgan Pressel, Lexi Thompson and Lydia Ko. But those players are exceptions to the rule, and Li might turn out to be the same.
But Lewis has been around the game long enough to know that sometimes a word of caution is in order. Every promising 10-year-old watching at home needn’t rush to register for next year’s sectional qualifying. It’s OK to take it slowly.
Lewis found hot water last year after she complained on Twitter about the behavior of crowds in China at a first-year event. Beecham helped Lewis look at it as a welcome challenge like the wind, but he also helped her learn how to block out the negative comments she had read from journalists and fans.
“He has definitely helped with that side of it, being able to read stuff and delete it and move on,” Lewis said. “They don’t know me. They don’t know who I am as a person.”
Lewis has become an important voice for the LPGA. She’s committed to the well-being of the tour and is eager to spend time with young players finding their way.
Fans and media beg for something other than the company line, something honest and heartfelt that carries meaning. Lewis delivers that, and although she’s learning weekly how best to share her ideas, it’s nice to know that if something she says backfires, she’s not going to pull into her shell and simply play golf. She’ll take it in, evaluate and let it roll off her back.
“I know that I said the right thing,” Lewis said. “I said what I believe, and I’m allowed to do that.”
The Li controversy is an unfortunate sideshow to Lewis’ play, which on Day 1 at Pinehurst was simply terrific.
“It was such an easy day,” said Lewis, who hit 17 greens and 13 fairways.
Before she teed off, Lewis’ coach Joe Hallett said to her: “Remember, brains equals birdies, and you’ve got a lot of brains.”
Hallett said Lewis came into the day already patient. She signed every autograph she could during practice rounds (building karma, as Lewis called it). Actually, Lewis found out earlier this year in Phoenix that the more she interacts with young fans, the more relaxed she feels and the better she plays.
Hallett said for the past couple of years they have worked on compressing the ball to hit it higher, and it’s finally starting to click. The simplest way to put it, Hallett says, is that she has learned to get through impact instead of to impact.
The result: the difference between a single and a home run.
“It has really helped her wedges more than anything,” Hallett said.
And that’s not even mentioning her putting. When a lost Lewis first came to Hallett at the end of 2009, she wanted to learn how to putt. He taught her distance control on the greens, and two years later she entered another stratosphere after learning AimPoint from Mark Sweeney.
Hallett said after two days with Sweeney, Lewis walked away with a migraine, only to have the light bulb go on that would overhaul her game.
“I think lag putting is kind of put on a premium this week,” Lewis said. “Putting, to me, is the most important part of the game.”
Little wonder then that she leads the tour on the greens, and virtually everywhere else.