Lucy Li’s swing was awfully good for someone who couldn’t have been more than 4 or 5 years old.
Joby Ross remembers her practicing for hours at Mariners Point Golf Center, near Li’s home in Redwood Shores, Calif. Ross is a teaching pro at Mariners Point, but Lucy didn’t come for instruction. She was getting that from her mother and aunt, who did not even play golf.
“I think they were just teaching her out of books and magazines back then, and doing the best they could,” Ross said. “It’s pretty amazing. Occasionally, if I saw something that wasn’t quite right, I would come over and mention it, like `She’s taking it away too far inside.’ But that was it.”
While it’s being reported Li picked up the game when she was 7, Ross says she was actually 4 or 5 when she began showing up at Mariners Point, where there is a driving range, a short-game practice area and a nine-hole par 3 course.
Watching from a distance, Ross was impressed.
“After she stopped coming to our place, I remember telling the guys to keep their eye out for this kid, because we were going to hear about her again,” Ross said. “She was going to do something special down the road.”
Make that extra special.
The 11-year-old’s list of feats grew Monday when she became the youngest player ever to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Open. Li, just a sixth grader, won the U.S. Women’s Open sectional qualifier at the Old Course at Half Moon Bay outside San Francisco. She promises to be one of the star attractions when she tees it up with the best in women’s golf at Pinehurst No. 2 next month.
Li shot rounds of 74 and 68 at Half Moon Bay. Her even-par total was seven shots better than anyone else in that sectional. She breaks the age mark of Lexi Thompson as the youngest qualifier to a U.S. Women’s Open. Thompson was 12 years, 4 months and 18 days old when she competed in the 2007 Women’s Open. Li, who turns 12 on Oct. 1, will be 11 years, 8 months and 19 days old when she tees off in this year's Open on June 19.
“It’s pretty unbelievable, quite the amazing story,” said Jim McLean, who has been teaching Li since her parents brought her to him four years ago. “I know how good she is, but I was still surprised.”
Li made international news this week. McLean said he has been contacted by countless major news organizations wanting the scoop on this gifted 11-year-old. Lucy hasn’t done any interviews, though. The family is guarded with a flood of requests pouring in to them.
“Lucy is very honored to have qualified for the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open, and to have the opportunity to compete in this most prestigious national championship,” the family said in a statement released by the USGA. “Her time spent playing last year’s USGA Championships, as well as her win at the Drive, Chip & Putt, have provided her with many good opportunities that she will consider as she prepares for the U.S. Women’s Open.
“We are very grateful for the support Lucy has received, both from the golf community and the media. She is looking forward to playing Pinehurst.”
Li won her age division last month in the inaugural Drive, Chip and Putt Championship at Augusta National on the Sunday before the Masters. Last year, she became the youngest player to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Amateur and also the youngest to make it to match play at the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship.
McLean says Li was 7 when her parents first called him at his base at Trump Doral in Miami, asking if he would teach her. He’s not sure she had any regular, formal instruction before they approached him.
“She was probably a little too young for me to start working with her,” McLean said. “But they came out here, asked me to watch her hit shots and said they were serious about having her move here for the winter.”
And they did move Lucy to Miami for the winters. Lucy’s mom, Amy, and her aunt, Tao, first accompanied Lucy. Tao got an apartment near Trump Doral and stays with Lucy while she works at McLean’s golf school four months of the year. Warren, Lucy's father, is a computer consultant working in the Bay Area.
“You never know with young kids, how interested they are going to be, or what might derail them,” McLean said.
So early on, McLean was curious how much of this intensity of interest in golf was coming from the family, and how much was coming from Lucy. He said he quickly learned how much she loved the game in their winters together.
Ross said he had the same questions when he first watched Lucy at Mariners Point.
Back when Lucy was 5 or so, Ross remembers seeing her in tears on the range. Ross was concerned, and he approached the family to see what the fuss was about.
“They would come and practice for hours,” Ross said. “I wondered if they were practicing too hard, and maybe that’s what the tantrum was about. I went over and asked if she was OK.”
To Ross’ surprise, he discovered that it was Lucy’s mom and aunt who were getting tired and wanted to go home, and that Lucy was in tears protesting because she wanted to stay and keep hitting balls.
“She was upset because she didn’t want to leave,” Ross said.
McLean says Lucy may seem quiet and shy at first, but she has “quite the personality” and is “very funny” and likes to laugh. She also enjoys music and is very artistic. She likes to draw and will doodle impressively on scorecards. She also likes to make things, like necklaces and bracelets.
Lucy’s golf skill comes with some athleticism. Before golf, she was in ballet and tap dance and even did some 10-meter diving in a swimming program, even though she wasn’t a very good swimmer.
The family’s close, McLean said, and Lucy is very attached to her older brother, Luke, who is a student at Princeton. In fact, that’s how Lucy got started in golf. Her brother played and she would watch him practice, eventually picking up a club and hitting balls.
“I’m sure there will be a tremendous amount of scrutiny on her at Pinehurst,” McLean said. “I think she’ll deliver. She has the game, but it’s tough. You’re going up against the best players in the world. It’s jumping up a lot of levels.”
McLean will be there, confident that no matter how Li fares, she should celebrate the fact that she made it there.