An 11-year-old girl is about to tee it up in a major championship, as the youngest person ever to qualify for the US Women’s Open.
Lucy Li has already impressed onlookers in her preparations at Pinehurst – scene of last week's men's US Open. They were particularly impressed by her mature responses in her press conference on Tuesday. There were a few giggles. But she came off pretty polished, which could be an indication of how she might deal with the test on an unrelenting course that is No. 2.
Li was asked if she had ever been intimidated on a golf course. “No. I just don’t care that much,” she said, causing laughter in the interview room.Anything about playing in the Women’s Open make her nervous? “Not really,” she said. In the 16-minute media session, Li talked of Donald Ross courses, her favourite sports, favourite subjects in school, favourite golfer, favourite foods…
Li is listed at 5 foot 2, which may be generous. Michelle Wie, one of the LPGA’s biggest names, said she was introduced Sunday afternoon to Li, saying her first impression was: “She looks so cute.”
Wie said she hoped Li would feel comfortable enough to ask questions of the other players.
“We’re not scary; we won’t bite,” Wie said. It’s not as if Li was issued an invitation to the U.S. Golf Association – the way Beverly Klass competed in the 1967 Women’s Open at age 10. In the USGA qualifier at Half Moon Bay, California, Li finished at even-par 142 and was the winner by eight shots. “She’s the real deal,” said Bryan Bush, a local Pinehurst caddie who will carry Li’s bag this week. Li, from Redwood Shores, California, got in nine holes Tuesday at No. 2. One of her playing partners was Beatriz Recari of Spain, an LPGA Tour pro and European Solheim Cup member last year.
“I think she’s fearless. I think she’s going to do well,” Recari said. “There were a lot of people out there watching and clapping, and she seemed completely calm. It’s good to see youngsters aren’t afraid to compete at the highest level.
“She’s shorter than everybody else, but she hit it pretty solid. It’s a long course, but I don’t think she’s afraid of hitting woods into the greens.”
Stacy Lewis, the top-ranked women’s player in the world, said she first noticed Li on the practice range Tuesday, adding, “How little she was and the pigtails kind of caught me off-guard.”
Nor was Lewis that convinced that an 11-year-old playing in the Women’s Open was such a good thing. “I’m not a big fan of it,” Lewis said. “She qualified, so we can’t say anything about that. You qualify for an Open, it’s a great thing. But I just like to see kids be successful at every level before they come out here.” Lewis said it would be wise for Li to play in more events such as the U.S. Women’s Amateur before competing against seasoned LPGA professionals. Li qualified for the U.S. Women’s Am last year – the youngest to do it – and was the youngest to reach the match-play portion during the 2013 U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links event.
“I just like to see kids learn how to win before they come get beat up out here,” Lewis said.Li said it was her decision, not her parents’, to attempt to qualify for the event this year. “Because it’s 36 holes and I didn’t care if I qualified or not,” she said.
“I just wanted to go for the experience.” She received a lot of exposure on the Sunday before this year’s Masters, winning her age division in the inaugural Drive, Chip & Putt Championship at Augusta National. The Golf Channel provided live coverage, and Li got her share of TV time.
But this will be golf on a bigger stage, on No. 2, in the Women’s Open. Lexi Thompson, who won the year’s first major title at the Kraft Nabisco, was 12 when she qualified for the 2007 U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club in Southern Pines. Then the youngest qualifier, she dealt with media interviews and autograph sessions and missed the cut after rounds of 76 and 82.
“It was pretty overwhelming,” Thompson said Tuesday. “My advice this week would be to have fun. Take it as a learning experience. If this is what she wants to do for her life, she will learn from the other players and see what she needs to improve on.”
But Li said she hasn’t thought that far ahead, that it’s more about this week and the U.S. Women’s Open.“Right now, it’s just play as well as I can, and the game’s going to take me wherever it’s going to take me,” Li said.