Before Gaby Lopez fired a closing 63 and authored a comeback victory Sunday afternoon at the Dana Open, the stage was set at Highland Meadows Golf Club for 19-year-old Lucy Li to break through.
Li, the former prodigy who at age 11 qualified for a U.S. Women’s Open, was now, eight years after that memorable debut at Pinehurst, on the cusp of her first LPGA victory. In the Dana field courtesy of her top-10 at the LPGA’s previous event in Canada, Li grabbed the 54-hole lead at 14 under, a shot clear of Lexi Thompson, whom Li supplanted as the youngest USWO competitor in 2014 and would be grouped with Li and Caroline Masson in Sunday’s final threesome in Ohio.
“Doesn't get any better than that, right?” Li said Saturday evening of her grouping with Thompson. “Hopefully be a good turnout and good final round.”
While there was buzz when Li’s group teed off Sunday morning, it quickly faded as Li and Thompson combined for just one birdie and 27 pars in their first 14 holes. At that point, Lopez had already stormed into the lead. Li closed in even par to shoot 1-under 70 and tie for fourth, three back of Lopez. Thompson bogeyed Nos. 15-17 and ended up T-16.
Li’s maiden LPGA title would have to wait.
“I played good all week,” Li said afterward. “I hit it good today, just some of the putts wouldn't fall. It was a good, solid week. I tried my best and that's all I can control.”
Li, who doesn’t turn 20 until next month, currently leads the Epson Tour money list thanks largely to two victories this season and has already clinched her LPGA card for next season. But with three LPGA starts in the past month, she’s hoping to expedite her arrival on the big tour by winning.
Though she faltered Sunday, her top-10 performance guarantees her a spot in next week’s Kroger Queen City Championship in Cincinnati. She’ll arrive there more confident.
“There are definitely some learning points,” Li said. “Yesterday, I was a little nervous on the first couple of holes. Today, didn't really feel nervous at all, so that was definitely good…
“I'm really excited to play next week. I've heard that's going to be a good tournament. And Portland (she’s already received an exemption into the Sept. 15-18 event). And then finally get some rest after that.”
Asked if a 19-year-old needs rest, Li quickly set the record straight.
“Yes,” she said. “I definitely get tired.”
And with that, Li was off, likely still stinging but deep down knowing that her first LPGA triumph isn’t far away.