PINEHURST, N.C. – The world’s eyes are upon her on the largest stage women’s golf has ever visited.
Youthful ambitions will ride on her shoulders when she tees it up Thursday in the start of the U.S. Women’s Open at Pinehurst No. 2.
Lucy Li, whether she likes it or not, carries a banner this week for a game that keeps getting younger in the women’s ranks.
At 11 years old, Li will be scrutinized by folks who wonder if she’s too young, if there’s danger thrusting younger and younger girls into a high-pressure and highly competitive adult world. In 2001, Morgan Pressel stunned the game, becoming the youngest player to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Open. She was 13 when she teed it up at Pine Needles. In ’07, Lexi Thompson broke Pressel’s mark, teeing it up at 12 when the U.S. Women’s Open returned to Pine Needles. In 2012, Lydia Ko won the CN Canadian Women’s Open at 15, becoming the youngest player to win an LPGA event.
Youth’s a theme that resonates beyond Li this week with Ko trying to win this championship and become the youngest world No. 1 in the history of men’s or women’s professional golf.
“I just want to go out there and have fun and play the best I can,” Li said.
Li was asked in her news conference Tuesday whose idea it was to try to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Open.
“It was mine,” she said. “I didn’t care if I qualified or not. I just wanted the experience.”
Rolex world No. 1 Stacy Lewis played at the University of Arkansas and didn’t turn pro until she was 22. She has concerns when she sees young players stepping on to the big stages in professional golf. She voiced them back when Thompson was considering turning pro at 15. She voiced them again this week when asked about Li playing on such a large stage.
“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. I just like to see kids be successful at every level before they come out here. I would like to maybe see her play some U.S. Ams, play the Pub Links and get into match play, where you have some experience. I just like to see kids learn how to win before they come get beat up out here.”
Lewis said she doesn’t see an age restriction working, but that parents need to be careful.
“When I found out she qualified, I said, `Well, where does she go from here? You qualify for an Open at 11, what do you do next?’” Lewis said. “If it was my kid, I wouldn't let her play in the U.S. Open qualifier at 11, but that's just me.”
Li earned her way to the U.S. Women’s Open, winning the sectional qualifier at Half Moon Bay near her home outside San Francisco by seven shots. She handled her news conference beautifully on Tuesday, charming national media with smart answers and a disarming giggle. She didn’t appear the least bit overwhelmed. If she had, it would have fueled skepticism. The next test is how she handles Pinehurst No. 2, a beast of a test. It won’t be how she handles the test of skill so much as how she handles the emotions that come with it that will leave the largest impression.
“I hope she thinks it’s really cool,” said Michelle Wie, who contended at the Kraft Nabisco when she was 13 and made the cut at the U.S. Women’s Open that same year. “I remember my first U.S. Open. If I missed a green, I was like, ‘Oh, this is still really cool.’ This is what U.S. Opens are like. You hear stories about how hard it is, but you can’t tell how hard watching it on TV.
“It’s an incredible experience for her, and I think the memory is priceless. I hope she learns a lot. I hope she has fun.”
Li told the national media that she doesn’t care about the outcome. She is here to learn. While she says that, there is obviously a lot of ambition in the 11-year-old and her family. She leaves her home in Redwood Shores, Calif., for four months of the year to live in Miami with her aunt to attend Jim McLean’s golf school at Trump Doral. McLean said Li was 7 when the family first flew her to Miami to have McLean look at her swing.
“People say a player that young should go have fun in something like this,” said Scott Thompson, Lexi’s father. “But if you told Lexi when she was 12 that we were going to the U.S. Women’s just to have fun, she would have laughed. She wanted to compete.”
Lexi shot 76-82 at Pine Needles in that ’07 U.S. Women’s Open and missed the cut. Pressel shot a pair 77s and also missed the cut in the ’01 U.S. Women’s Open.
Yes, there are pitfalls in pushing a child into an adult world, but as it was with Pressel and Thompson, Li doesn’t seem like she’s being pushed at all. She appears to really be in love with the game. In that regard, every child is different, built differently. A stage like this would probably overwhelm most 11-year-olds, but Li proved in Tuesday’s news conference that she was built for a moment like that. We’ll see come Thursday and Friday how Li is built with the pressure on in major championship play.
Laura Davies, playing in her 26th U.S. Women’s Open, says there should be no downside to Li’s playing the U.S. Women’s Open. She points out that Pressel and Thompson have done pretty well for themselves after making young starts on big stages.
“They both won major championships,” Davies said. “So look, 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?’ So I don't think anything bad can come out of it, because she's too young to worry about the pressure. I imagine she wouldn't have any pressure on her because she's just having fun, she's off from school. It’s perfect.”
We might not truly know that for a while, not even by week’s end. We might not know that until Li looks back 10 years from now and tells us.