PINEHURST, N.C. – Lucy Li’s pig tails are sprouting out of the top of her lime green visor as she makes her way around Pinehurst No. 2 during Tuesday’s practice round at the U.S. Women’s Open.
She’s wearing a green-and-white shirt, with a zebra’s face on the front, sparkly green sequins all over the shoulders, and a green skirt with white polka dots.
She says she’s 5 feet 3, but she seems shorter than that. She can’t weigh more than 100 pounds, but she says she can drive the ball about 230 yards and can hit a 5-iron about 170. When she smiles, she reveals a mouth full of braces.
There’s no missing who the history making 11-year-old is here at the U.S. Women’s Open.
Just a sixth grader from Redwood Shores, Calif., Li will have some story to tell if she’s asked to write about what she did on her summer vacation when school resumes.
When Rolex world No. 1 Stacy Lewis checked in at Pinehurst, she discovered Li’s locker is right next to hers. Actually, it’s just beneath hers. Lewis met her for the first time on the range on Monday morning.
“Seeing how little she was, the pig tails, it caught me off guard,” Lewis said.
Michelle Wie was struck at just how young Li looks.
“She looks so darn cute,” said Wie, who knows something about being a prodigy. “I don’t think I looked that cute when I was 11. She just looks so excited, so wide-eyed.”
There’s something so incongruous about cute meeting fierce here at the U.S. Women’s Open, a championship setting up as possibly one of the most brutish tests the women have ever faced, if rains don’t take the wicked mischief out of these turtleback greens.
Li didn’t just win the sectional qualifier at Half Moon Bay outside San Francisco to become the youngest player ever to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Open. She won it by seven shots. She did this shortly after winning her age division in the inaugural Drive, Chip & Putt Championship at Augusta National. She’s also the youngest player to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Amateur, pulling off that feat when she was 10.
Pinehurst No. 2 looks so brawny, so intimidating, you can’t help wondering if the disposition of any 11-year-old is suited to dealing with the pressure of this major championship, and doing it on national television, with worldwide media in tow.
If a golf course could be charmed, though, Li’s disposition would suit it.
She charmed the media Tuesday in her introductory news conference.
A bit of a mystery girl coming here, with her family closely guarding her privacy, Li took the veil off who she is in a news conference. With 15 TV cameras pointed at her, with more than 50 media eagerly waiting to ask her questions, Li didn’t look the least bit overwhelmed.
“I just want to go out there and have fun and play the best I can, and I really don't care about the outcome,” Li said. “It’s just, I want to have fun and learn. I want to learn a lot from these great players.”
Li punctuated her answers with delightful school-girl giggles, an endearing practice that also proved disarming.
What does she like to do when she isn’t golfing?
“I love doing a lot of things, but reading is my favorite,” she said.
She likes Rick Riordan’s stories, the tales of Percy Jackson and his adventures upon discovering he’s actually the modern-day son of an ancient Greek God. She also likes Sherlock Holmes. She’s apparently quite the student. She says she loves all her subjects, including math, science and history. According to the USGA’s official player guide, her parents say she has a photographic memory.
What does she think about playing in front of huge galleries come Thursday?
“I like crowds,” Li says. “They don’t bother me. I play better the more people that come to watch me.”
Does anything about this week scare her?
“Not really,” she says matter of factly.
Has she ever been intimidated on a golf course?
“No, I just don’t care that much,” she says, that disarming giggle letting you know she isn’t being flippant.
The mystery shrouding this prodigy has led to misinformation about the family as a whole. Her father, Warren, isn’t a computer consultant, as has been reported. He’s in finance.
“He’s a stock trader,” Li says. “He’s really good at it.”
The enthusiasm of that answer sent a roar through the media room. She did that more than once.
Her mother, Amy, used to be a manager with Hewlett-Packard. Lucy is also very close to her aunt, Tao, whom she stays with while attending Jim McLean’s golf school in Miami in the winters. She’s also very close to her brother, Luke, who attends Princeton.
Li proved she can handle a crowd of media in an interview room, but what about Pinehurst No. 2?
Li played nine holes on Tuesday alongside Beatriz Recari, the three-time LPGA winner. She played 18 on Monday.
Though Li isn’t long, and will wear out her 3-wood and 5-wood playing Pinehurst No. 2, Recari wouldn’t concede the sixth grader is overmatched.
“I think she was fearless, and I think she’s going to do well,” Recari said. “There were a lot of people out there today, watching and clapping, and she seemed like she was completely cool.”
How serious is Li taking her preparation? She has been at Pinehurst for at least two weeks.
Li’s caddie, a local Pinehurst veteran, said he was in awe of Li’s grasp of the game when he met her for the first time over a dinner on June 3. Bryan Bush has been toting bags at Pinehurst No. 2 for four years but has been playing the course a lot longer. He couldn’t believe it when the 11-year-old began talking to him about golf course design.
“What’s so great about Lucy is her golf knowledge,” Bush said beneath the Pinehurst No. 2 clubhouse after the nine-hole practice round. “She understands and knows all about Donald Ross and how he builds greens. That’s what was so neat when I first met her. She got to town, and we sat down for about an hour and a half. I was blown away with her knowledge of the game at age 11, because I sure as heck didn’t have it at 11 . . . Ross, Alister MacKenzie, she knows all the greats. She knew Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw had done the restoration.”
Playing Charleston Country Club, and the Peninsula Country Club outside San Francisco, piqued Li’s interest in Donald Ross. He designed both courses.
Bush knew Li got the Ross philosophy when she told him: “Ross built these greens to repel golf balls, not receive them.”
So how is a short-hitting sixth grader going to survive taking so many woods into these turtleback greens? Bush shared what he’s seeing in practice rounds.
“You’re watching an 11-year-old hit a 5-wood as well as I can hit a pitching wedge,” he said. “It really brings you back to like, `Wow, I’m in complete awe.'”
Bush was asked if he would be surprised to see her make the cut.
“Oh, no, we will be here on Saturday,” he said.
If that’s true, history will run through the weekend for the Li family.