By Jeff Babineau, Golfweek
PINEHURST, N.C. – The Kid, sporting cute little ponytails, clad in red, white and blue sparkling stars and stripes and appearing as if she just stepped out of an old Norman Rockwell painting, can flat-out play.
If you were worried for the overall well-being of Lucy Li, the precocious 11-year-old amateur from California who is the youngest qualifier in U.S. Women’s Open history, worry no more. Yes, she’s 11, and yes, she has yet to start sixth grade, and yes, she’s not even old enough to try her hand at an AJGA event and might not even be tall enough for all the rides at Disney. But she’ll be just fine.
When she tells you she can play, believe her. She can. And when she tells you she doesn’t care what she shoots, that she’s here at one of Donald Ross’ most feared chamber of horrors with one goal – just to have fun – she seems to be telling the truth there, too.
The 8-over 78 that Li posted to open the 69th U.S. Women’s Open at storied Pinehurst No. 2 does little justice in telling the story of how well she actually performed on such a big stage Thursday. The little peanut stepped to the 10th tee (her first hole) at 7:07 a.m., asked starter Lew Ellen Erickson about the teeing order, and promptly smashed a drive that traveled 204 yards up the right side of the fairway, then trickled right before settling 1 foot upon hardpan in a native area. She wouldn’t miss another fairway all day.
She was surprisingly long, too. “She hit it by me twice,” said fellow competitor Catherine O’Donnell, who plays on the Symetra Tour. “I wasn’t real happy about that.”
O’Donnell was joking, of course, and thoroughly enjoyed her pairing. She walked away mightily impressed.
“She looks 11,” O'Donnell said of Li. “She doesn't talk 11, and she doesn't hit the ball like she's 11.”
Li basically had three rough holes. She opened with a double bogey at the par-5 10th when a pretty decent greenside bunker shot stopped momentarily, then trickled off the back of the green. (“I got ‘Rossed,’ ” she told her caddie, Bryan Bush, referencing No. 2’s famed architect.) She made another double bogey at the rugged 458-yard, par-4 16th, which likely will play like a par 5 all week. And she made a triple at the par-4 third (her 12th) when she tugged a second shot left of the green, struggled with a bunker shot and a chip, and then three-putted from 20 feet.
But other than that, she was uber-impressive. She hit 13 of 14 fairways and nine greens in regulation, made two birdies (Nos. 1 and 5) and had another birdie putt horseshoe out of the hole at No. 17.
There was concern that an 11-year-old might be overmatched on such a difficult course and might be embarrassed. Why, she should be at camp somewhere, or on some playground at home with her peers. But this is the most democratic game of all. Shoot the scores, and you are welcome to jump in and play.
“Look,” said former U.S. Open champion Laura Davies, a fellow qualifier, earlier this week, “if you're good enough, you're old enough. Or young enough. Whichever way you look at it. 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?”
By the time Li knocked down a 6-footer for birdie at the par-5 fifth, pumping her right fist twice, her crowd had swelled, and grown men and women walking with their young daughters and sons were treated to quite a show.
So, Li, was asked, how would you describe your day if one of your friends were to ask about it?
“I’m going to tell them I was 7 over in three holes, 1 over par in 15 (others), and I made 13 pars,” she said.
After each of her two doubles and the triple, she managed to bounce back strongly. After she made double on her opening hole, she responded by flushing a 4-hybrid from 165 yards right at the flag at the par-4 11th, giving herself a run at birdie. She hit a great approach to a back pin at No. 1, setting up her first birdie, and hit the longest drive of her threesome (265 yards) at the par-4 second. She showed great touch with deft pitches (and solid par-saving putts) on the elevated greens at Nos. 14 and 8 (her 17th), two good par 4s. She hit very few loose shots.
All the while, she was able to stay unfazed by her growing gallery, and remained focused laser-like on the next shot ahead.
As for Bush, a local Pinehurst caddie, he had fears for his 11-year-old player as they stood on the opening tee first thing in the morning. “I was ready to vomit,” he said. “I know she doesn’t care, but I do. She’s carefree and I’m nervous. The two of us together, we just laugh.”
Did Li accomplish her goal of having some fun out there?
“It was a lot of fun,” she said. “I struggled today, but it was great.”
In all truth, the only time she appeared to struggle was at her post-round presser, where she stood on a wooden box to get closer to the microphone and tried to answer questions at the same time she was trying to finish a fruity ice-cream popsicle. She had a far better handle on the members of the media and their questions than that ice cream, which by interview's end was dripping around her shoe tops.
It was just past midday, she was bound for the range, then to the short-game area for some bunker shots, and had little else planned for the afternoon.
What was her plan? “Eat more ice cream,” she said.
Li’s bio in the U.S. Women’s Open media guide ends with this line: She is playing in her first U.S. Women’s Open.
It certainly won’t be her last. The Kid has game.