Li Charms All With Her Attitude and Her Game
By Hunki Yun, USGA
VILLAGE OF PINEHURST, N.C. – Not surprisingly, Lucy Li arrived early for her starting time on Thursday.
Displaying the preternatural poise that helped the 11-year-old become the youngest qualifier in U.S. Women’s Open history, Li stepped out of the van that transported her to the 10th tee from the practice area and quietly stood roughly 50 yards from the teeing ground. She was moments from making golf history, but Li looked as if she were waiting for a bus, her placid mien belying the spotlight she was about to enter.
Her demeanor varied little through the ups and downs of her first-round 78 at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club’s Course No. 2, a round that started with a double bogey on the par-5 10th hole and included another double bogey on the 16th hole, a triple bogey on the third hole, and two birdies – on the first and fifth holes.
Despite the three bad holes, Li was happy with her 8-over-par round.
“It was great,” said Li. “What I was so happy about in my round, [was that] after I got doubles and triples, I was able to get it back. And I got a lot of pars after that.”
Wearing an outfit of stars, stripes and hearts, Li handled poor shots with aplomb and only displayed emotions a couple of times during her round – when her birdie putt on the 17th hole lipped out, and several fist pumps after her birdie on the fifth hole.
“She is so mature for her age,” said 23-year-old Jessica Wallace, who played with Li. “There were times when I felt more immature than she is. [Catherine O’Donnell, the third member of the group] and I had fun talking to her. She’s so mature, it's like talking to another 23-year-old.”
In addition to being able to connect with Li, O’Donnell was impressed by her game.
“She’s way better than I was expecting,” said O’Donnell. “She hits it out there farther than I was expecting. She still did struggle on a couple of the holes, because she can’t get there. But overall she slings it out there really, really nicely. And her 3-wood and 5-wood or whatever she’s hitting is right at the pin every time.”
During the first round, Li showed why she was the winner of the girls’ 10-11 age group of the Drive, Chip & Putt Championship. She missed just one fairway and made several pars after missing nine greens.
Her best save came on the 426-yard, par-4 eighth hole. After missing the green long right, she hit a precisely executed pitch that came to rest 6 feet from the hole. Employing the same quick, no-nonsense pre-shot routine she uses on every shot – one to three practice swings or strokes, address, and a quick look at the target before starting the stroke – Li made a par that must have felt like a birdie.
“That was the best up-and-down I’ve ever seen,” said Li’s caddie, Bryan Bush, a looper at Pinehurst.
At its largest when that putt fell, Li’s gallery had grown steadily during the round, expressing by turns curiosity, wonder, admiration and support as she hit fairway after fairway.
“There she is!”
“Keep it up, Lucy!”
“I can’t believe she’s only a year older than my granddaughter!”
On the three holes on which she made double bogey or worse, she hit indifferent shots that were repelled by Donald Ross’ raised greens. On the 339-yard third hole, Li’s approach wedge landed on the green but rolled into a greenside bunker. She hit an explosion shot that was slightly strong, but long enough to roll over the green and down the hill. The fourth shot barely climbed up that hill, and Li three-putted.
“It’s tough,” said Li, who was smiling and laughing after her round. “You miss the ball by 3 feet and it could be like a two- or three-shot difference. You could hit it 3 feet more right and you’d be putting this far away for birdie. Or you could be in the bunker and struggling for a bogey. I like the golf course, though; it’s good.”
An 11-year-old reasonably could be expected to sulk after a bad hole, but Li strode impassively to the fourth hole and recovered, making par-birdie on the next two holes.
As Li was walking to the sixth tee, the group that included Stacy Lewis and Inbee Park, the two best players in the world, was on the third hole, which was nearby. Like an understudy aspiring for a leading role, Li assiduously watched Park hit a chip onto the green.
“That was like the shot I had,” she told Wallace, who was also watching.
“Your chip was just a few rolls from being close to the hole,” Wallace replied.
“That’s what happens on these greens,” chimed Wallace’s caddie. “You got Rossed.”
Li will try to absorb her observations and experiences from the first round and improve her score for the second round, when she goes off the first tee at 12:52 p.m.
Between rounds, Li’s priorities are not hole locations and club selection, but rather matters more appropriate for an 11-year-old, like a hankering for ice cream. Walking through the clubhouse with her parents and her caddie on the way to talk to the media about her round, she asked the USGA official escorting her whether she could stop by the locker room for an ice-cream bar first.
When she came out several minutes later, Bush jokingly said: “Thanks for getting your caddie one.”
Li’s mother, Amy Zeng, offered to get a bar for Bush, who replied, “I’m just kidding.”
As the group started walking, Warren Li wanted his daughter to finish the ice cream before returning outside. Lucy ignored him and kept walking, eating all the way through her interview – much to the delight of the media.
After an impressive display of precocity, the 11-year-old was finally acting her age.
Hunki Yun is the USGA’s director of strategic projects. Email him at email@example.com.
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