PINEHURST, N.C. – With a few minutes to kill on the third tee box Thursday, Lucy Li found a shady patch of grass and took a seat.
Pigtails popping out of her visor and a cool towel around her neck, she took a few bites from a fruit cup and chatted with people standing around her.
Ten minutes later, she got up and went back to making history at the U.S. Women’s Open.
At 11 years old, Li is the youngest ever to qualify for this event, and the second-youngest to ever tee it up. Entering the week, the questions piled up:
Could she hit it far enough? Could she hold a ball on the turtleback greens of Pinehurst No. 2? Would she possess the patience and discipline to make it around an Open setup?
Even after an 8-over 78, the answer to all of those questions was a resounding yes.
Li double-bogeyed her first hole, the par-5 10th, but from there she displayed poise and talent that belied her age.
“She’s way better than I was expecting,” said Catherine O’Donnell, who played with Li in the opening round and matched her score. “She looks 11, (but) she doesn’t talk 11, and she doesn’t hit the ball like she’s 11.”
Throughout the round, Li chatted with O’Donnell, 24, and 23-year-old Jessica Wallace, who rounded out the group and shot 74. Topics ranged from Harry Potter – “I don’t think she’s quite old enough,” noted O’Donnell – to the NBA, when Li explained that she roots for the Miami Heat over her hometown Golden State Warriors.
Between the sessions of small talk, Li impressed with her performance. She missed the opening fairway but found each of the next 13, and reached nine of 18 greens in regulation even though she was hitting a wood or hybrid club into half of them.
Her score left her 11 shots off the lead, but also one shot ahead of LPGA winners Natalie Gulbis and Jessica Korda.
“I’m happy with how I played,” Li said. “I mean, it’s 8 over, it’s not bad. But I was 7 over in three holes, so that’s 1 over in 15 holes. So, yeah, I just need to get rid of the big numbers.”
The trouble holes were the 10th and 16th, where Li found greenside bunkers and made double bogeys. She again found the sand on the par-4 third after pulling her wedge approach, and after two pitches and three putts she left with a triple bogey.
Despite such difficulties on the Donald Ross design, Li showed not even a hint of concern.
“We just laughed,” Li's caddie, Bryan Bush, said. “She goes, ‘Oh, I got Ross’d.’ And I told her, ‘Yes, you did.’”
Li made the turn at 5 over, then birdied the first hole after hitting a 6-iron approach to 15 feet, offering a small fist pump when the putt found the hole. She bounced back after trouble at No. 3, making a par at the difficult fourth and then carding her second birdie of the day at No. 5 after her wedge spun to within 6 feet. That putt elicited two fist pumps.
“That’s what I was so happy about in my round,” Li said, “because after I got doubles and triples, I was able to get it back.”
As the round progressed, the crowds following Li’s group swelled. Girls who looked as if they could have been in a schoolroom with her instead were asking their parents where they could get her skirt – a patriotic red, white and blue number with stars throughout.
One girl asked her for her autograph on the second tee, with Li hesitating before suggesting she find her after the round. It seemed more like a chat between two friends at recess than a fan-player interaction at a major championship.
Reaction to Li’s shots was consistent: first a “Wow,” then a shake of the head, then a small chuckle in awe. A girl who barely stood over her bag was piping drive after drive, hitting her 5-wood as accurately as many players hit their 6-iron. Li said she felt no extra pressure as the gallery got bigger.
“It was a lot of fun, yeah. I play better with crowds,” she said. “So yeah, it was good.”
Among those in the gallery near the fourth green was Amy Alcott, who won this event in 1980 and was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1999. Alcott, like Li, is from California, and wanted to see the pre-teen play in person.
“I know how excited she must be,” said Alcott, who played in her first U.S. Women’s Open at 15. “It’ll be an experience that she’ll remember for a lifetime.”
The lessons Li will take from this week will be invaluable, and she reiterated both before the tournament and after Thursday’s round that score was immaterial. But under major championship pressure, she still authored some jaw-dropping shots.
After her 5-wood ran through the green on the par-4 eighth, Li was left with a difficult pitch from below the putting surface. She used her 60-degree wedge to hit it within a few feet, an up-and-down that Bush, who has caddied at Pinehurst for the past four years, described as one of the best he’s ever seen on that hole.
On the par-4 second, she hit the longest drive of her group after her tee shot landed on a firm section of fairway and bounded down a slope. Bush estimated that the drive went 265 yards.
“She surprised me,” he said. “She told you guys in the press conference that on a tournament day it goes farther, and by God it does.”
Li’s playing competitors were equally impressed with her performance.
“I was expecting her not to be able to hit it as far, and I thought she would struggle because she couldn’t hit it as far,” O’Donnell said. “But, overall, she slings it really, really nicely.”
“Just the way she handles herself on the golf course, she is mature beyond her years,” added Wallace. “Her first U.S. Open, she’s 11 years old, who knows what people were expecting out of her this week. I thought she played the course well.”
Li addressed the media after her round with an ice-cream treat in hand, and as her well-earned dessert began to melt she was asked her preference between typical rough and the sandy areas at Pinehurst No. 2. After offering a mixed response, she paused.
“You’ve got to like the golf course, man,” she said.
It embodied the carefree attitude that Li embraces. She’s here this week to gain experience while making history, to win over fans with her innocent laugh, and to eat as much ice cream as she can. If she can play some good golf in between, so much the better.
She may have shot a 78, but on the opening day of the U.S. Women’s Open that was enough to steal the show.