Engage your average 11-year-old in a conversation about architecture and you might hear some informed opinions about Bob the Builder, “Mike Mulligan and his Steam Shovel,” or the alarming speed and alacrity with which the antisocial heroine of "Frozen" built her ice palace.
Lucy Li was talking Donald Ross on Tuesday, when the youngest-ever U.S. Women’s Open qualifier sat on the dais for her giggle-filled, 20-minute press conference at the Ross masterpiece, Pinehurst No. 2.
“I like Donald Ross,” she said. “I like him because I played Country Club of Charleston last year and Peninsula Golf Club in San Francisco, so I know that he loves doing those undulating greens.”
Welcome to the No. 1 curiosity at this U.S. Women’s Open, a 5-foot, 1-inch prodigy who shot 74-68 at Half Moon Bay, Calif., to win the sectional qualifier there by seven shots. At 11, Li breaks the record for youngest-ever qualifier previously held by Lexi Thompson, who was 12 when she cracked the field for the 2007 U.S. Women’s Open. “I practiced my autograph on the drive up to Pine Needles,” said Thompson, who shares a coach, Jim McLean, with Li. “And I was just — it was pretty overwhelming. I got to see all the players I watch on TV, and was so excited to be there I had to tell myself, all right, I'm actually playing this week.”
Li is the daughter of a former women’s table tennis champion. Her father, she says, is in finance. “He’s really good at it,” she said, laughing. She likes dancing, diving and badminton, and was inspired to pick up the game by watching her older brother play golf. She was a natural.
She also practices for up to three to four hours a day, depending on her schedule and, “If I feel like practicing.” Although she only hits her driver about 230 yards, and her 5-iron about 170, last year she became the youngest player to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Amateur (10), and the youngest to reach the match play portion of the Women’s Amateur Public Links. She also won her age group at the first Drive, Chip and Putt Championship at Augusta National in April. “It's awesome, right?” she said of her whirlwind 2014. “I mean, Pinehurst and Augusta National in like two months.”
Despite all of those bona fides, not everyone is happy to see her taking a spot in the 156-player field. (Li will tee off at the 10th hole at 7:07 a.m. Thursday with playing partners Catherine O’Donnell and Jessica Wallace.)
“I'm not a big fan of it,” said world No. 1 Stacy Lewis. “She qualified, so we can't say anything about that, but I like to see kids be successful at every level before they come out here. …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 is bicoastal, living with her parents when she’s home in the San Francisco Bay Area, and with her aunt when she’s in Miami to be closer to McLean. She is homeschooled, and in many ways is still just a kid. She’s a big fan of Dave & Buster’s arcade and, as a voracious reader, she’s partial to the books of Rick Riordan, whom fathers of 11-year-olds everywhere will recognize as an age-appropriate author. According to USA Today, she was spotted cradling a teddy bear as she strolled the merchandise tent on Sunday.
At their pre-tournament press conferences, several players were asked what advice they would give her. Juli Inkster — who will turn 54 next week and who said this U.S. Women’s Open, her 35th, will be her last — got off a good laugh line when she said, “I thought for sure I’d be playing with her.”
Said Laura Davies, 50, “What advice can you give a 11-year-old, really? It's extraordinary. I haven't actually seen her hit yet. I'm not sure how far she hits it. And this course, I don't know which one she qualified on, but I imagine this course is going to be a really long course for an 11-year-old. But I'm also imagining her short game must be unbelievable.”
Thompson, who is only eight years Li’s senior, said, “Take it as a learning experience. If this is what she wants to do for her life, she will learn off the other players and see what she needs to improve on. She's 11 years old, I mean she needs to kind of grow like I needed to grow and get longer and that, but my experience at age 12 helped me out so much.”
Li says she has no expectations, other than to learn from the best players in the world. She’s not worried about the crowds. “I play better the more people that come watch me,” she said. Her favorite moment has been meeting Webb Simpson last week. Why? “Because he’s my favorite player. He’s a really nice guy.” He also won the U.S. Open at Olympic Club — a course she knows and loves. She’s already played a practice round with Beatriz Recari, and she’s looking forward to eating some good food, which she’s noticed is one of the perks of qualifying for the big-time tournaments.
Her parents are with her at Pinehurst this week, as is her aunt. Will it all be too much? Will she be intimidated? Has she ever been intimidated?
“No,” Li said. “I just don't care that much.”