Michelle Wie, Lucy Li impress in different ways in strong openers at ANA Inspiration

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Michelle Wie, Lucy Li impress in different ways in strong openers at ANA Inspiration

LPGA Tour

Michelle Wie, Lucy Li impress in different ways in strong openers at ANA Inspiration

RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – As Michelle Wie walked behind 14-year-old Lucy Li on the first hole at Mission Hills, she thought to herself: “She’s really cute.”

That wasn’t the reaction Wie remembers receiving at the ANA Inspiration when she played with the pros at that age.

“No one really called me that when I was 13. ‘Damn, she’s tall,’ ” Wie said, laughing. “That’s all I got.”

The Wie-Li pairing on March 30 was a fascinating study of the extraordinary. At nearly a foot apart in height, Li looked like a mini-mini version of Wie, their black hair braided similarly with flashy shoes and fashionable attire. They’re both book smart – the homeschooled Li already has skipped two grades (she’s a junior), and Wie earned a degree from Stanford while playing full-time on the LPGA. They’re both DIYers who love to craft. Wie, with her black choker necklace and biker shorts, stands out from the crowd much like Li did earlier in the week with a uniquely fringed top.

Their golf games were worlds apart on a picture-perfect day in the desert, but both played beautifully. Li held her own with a 1-under 71 showing in her ANA debut, staying within herself against a towering opponent. Wie, meanwhile, continued the fine form she first showed in Singapore with a 4-under 68, one stroke behind leader Karine Icher.

The day’s marquee pairing undoubtedly delivered.

“I’m really impressed (by) how she carried herself from hole No. 1,” said Wie. “Her game did not seem 14.”

While the morning wave competed in ideal conditions, officials suspended play at 6:16 p.m. EDT when winds started gusting as high as 35 m.p.h. At nearby Palm Springs airport, a gust of 64 m.p.h. was recorded. Officials eventually called play for the day at 7 p.m. World No. 1 Lydia Ko was 2 under through five holes when play finished. Ariya Jutanugarn, No. 2, played her first seven holes in 1 over.

Everything about Li’s game in the opening round looked rhythmic and natural; Wie’s did not.

David Leadbetter, Wie’s longtime instructor, said Michelle is considerably shorter now than she was at Li’s age, back when she could carry the tree on the 16th hole with driver.

Wie’s injury-ridden body can’t do what it once did, but she has worked out a way to mostly keep the left side of the fairway out of play. When Wie went toe-to-toe with Lexi Thompson at this event in 2014, she lived on a 3-wood off the tee. Now she’s back to being aggressive, and it’s paying off.

“I think it was really nice for Michelle … to have a reminder of herself when she was this age,” said Golf Channel on-course reporter Kay Cockerill. “Sort of this refreshing throwback of how kids play. Lucy doesn’t have any strange mannerisms, no quirky movements.”

As for Li, she plotted her way around with her six woods, hitting 10 fairways and 11 greens. Li, who won the ANA Junior Inspiration on Sunday to get into the field, called it a consistent round.

“I thought I could have made a couple more putts,” she said.

Li became the youngest player to compete at the U.S. Women’s Open three years ago at Pinehurst No. 2. After she missed the cut, the pint-sized Li stayed for the weekend and watched Michelle Wie win the championship from inside the ropes. They were the darlings of the event, receiving most of the media’s attention.

“Pinehurst was crazy,” said Li. “It was like hundreds of people watching. I feel like that experience really helped me today (with) how to handle the pressure.”

After the round in the desert, Li might dive into her Algebra II homework, or maybe she’ll pick up her current read, the acclaimed “Team of Rivals.” She’s the rare 14-year-old who is equally interested in politics and the NBA.

While Li doesn’t currently have a swing instructor, mentors include Mickey Wright and Johnny Miller. Her aunt is never far from her side, and the family prefers to keep things unusually private.

At Li’s opening press conference at Pinehurst, the 11-year-old talked about Donald Ross’ “undulating” greens and her love of Sherlock Holmes.

The private Wright corresponds with Li via email. At the U.S. Women’s Amateur last year, Li described the 13-time major winner as a “great psychologist, very philosophical.”

While Wie’s career moved at warp speed (i.e. PGA Tour appearances), Li’s progression has been more subdued. She plays a light competitive schedule in comparison, and while she’s fast-tracking through high school, she has yet to make, or at least share, a plan to turn professional.

There are plenty of paths to study. Lydia Ko won an LPGA event at age 15, one week after clinching the U.S. Women’s Amateur. Lexi Thompson turned pro at age 15 and won on the LPGA at 16. Morgan Pressel won this championship 10 years ago at age 18.

And then there’s Wie, who blazed a trail that might not ever be duplicated.

The same might be said of Li in 15 years time.

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