At 11, Lucy Li’s success is joyful and anything but elementary

June 21, 2014

PINEHURST, N.C. – Before Lucy Li, 11-year-old golfing sweetheart, hit her first shot in the U.S. Open, Stacy Lewis took it upon herself to play the role of spoilsport. The No. 1 player in the women’s game 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."

It seemed so needlessly negative. As for the 36-hole one-day qualifier Lewis referred to, Lucy was the medalist in it. She won by seven, in a field of 84 golfers, held at the Old Course at Half Moon Bay. She shot rounds of 74 and 68.

Then Lucy came into the press tent for a group interview. She was so smart and charming and giggly and Lewis’s comments seemed even more unnecessary. In that Wednesday press conference, Lucy Li likely became the first golfer in the history of press-tent interviews to cite Sherlock Holmes as a favorite literary figure. Sherlock Holmes! Sir Arthur Conan Doyle on the summer reading list of an elite junior golfer!

The hits just kept coming. When she was asked if her father, a Chinese-born financial analyst with a PhD in computer science, can beat her in golf, she paused, said, “No,” and convulsed into giggles.

PHOTO GALLERY: Lucy Li at Pinehurst No. 2.

Then on Thursday, in the first round of this 69th U.S. Women’s Open, Lucy Li went out and shot a credible round of 78, putting herself in position to maybe – maybe -make the 36-hole cut. She sat, yoga-style, cross-legged in the shade between shots. After the round, she earned praise from her playing partners for her poise, good cheer and solid play. When Lucy explained her three bad holes to reporters she sounded almost like a pro. But she licked a pink Strawberry Starburst Sorbet popsickle all the while, still in touch with her inner 11-year old. And by that point Lewis’s comments – even though they were nothing more than her honest response to a reporter’s question – started to seem almost mean.

And then came Friday, and the second round.

PHOTO GALLERY: The best photos from the 2014 U.S. Open

Lucy looked to need a round of even par or one over to make the cut, a considerable task, but doable, based on what she had showed on Thursday. She practiced early, to avoid the heat, took off a few hours, hit some wedge shots and got herself to the first tee for her 12:52 p.m. tee time. All morning long, the heat and humidity had been rising. She had so much white sunblock on her face (as many players did) she looked almost like a Kabuki performer.

She needed her big red umbrella for protection from the sun and, briefly, to keep her dry in a passing rain shower. A TV camera was often right in her face. After a double-bogey six on her first hole of the day, putting her at 10 over par through 19 holes, making the cut had become just about impossible.

Pinehurst No. 2 is one of the most difficult courses in the world, and she was playing in the same field as the best players in the world. At age 11. Her front-nine score, 38, could not have been fun. Then a bogey on 10. Another on 11. The temperature getting well over 90. Problems in a fairway trap on 13 including one swing that moved her ball maybe a yard followed by an unplayable lie. As she came off the green, she asked her caddie, Bryan Bush, a Pinehurst regular, “What’d I make there?” The answer was a seven, on a 340-yard par-4.

  And then it looked like the wheels could come off. Then it looked like she might go for a number. Worse than that, then it looked like the drain of playing world-class competition on a world-class course with cameras might suck the life right out of her. And you wondered right then and there: was Stacy Lewis right?

She was not.

Lucy Li played the last five holes in even par, for another 78. She walked across that 18th green with her shoulders forward, using her putter as a walking stick. She exuded joy.

She answered post-round questions with her hands on her waist and her married parents, Warren Li and Amy Zeng, nowhere in sight. (Zeng, who has a masters in computer science, works for Hewlett Packard.) Lucy ended a lot of her sentences with that classic tweener sign-off of, “So, yeah.” She talked about how her friends at home had responded to the whole thing, raising her voice in imitation and saying, "'So you’re famous now.’” When she tried to search her memory for a shot-of-the-day, she flashed her eyeballs north in the direction of her considerable brain, came back empty and said, “I’m kind of tired now.” Tired, but happy. She was the youngest golfer to ever qualify for a U.S. Open.

Her play brings to mind the astonishing thing Guan Tianlang of China did in the 2013 Masters, when he made the cut as a 14-year-old. Lucy’s swing is far more fundamentally sound, but Guan’s short game was world-class by any standard. Lucy’s is a work-in-progress.

Her play at Pinehurst also brings to mind what Michelle Wie, the 36-hole leader at four under par, did in her first U.S. Open, in 2003, when she was 13. She finished in a tie for 39th. Also astonishing. She was better at 13 than she was at 20. Now she’s 24 and better than she’s ever been. Golf is hard to predict.

Guan Tianling demonstrated tremendous maturity as a 14-year-old. Michelle Wie at 13 seemed like a golfing Mozart with a magical swing but what joy the game gave her was hard to detect. Lucy Li, at 11, is a poised prodigy and joyful one. Plus she’s so smart.

Friday night, somebody gave Lucy’s parents an obscure novel written by a Canadian named Bob Jones, writing in the voice of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, called "Sherlock Holmes Saved Golf."

"Oh, she will love this,” Amy Zeng said. “She will read anything with Sherlock Holmes in it. She goes to the library and gets all the Sherlock Holmes books."

“She loves American history,” Warren Li said. “World War I, World War II, all American history.”

“And Egyptian history,” the mother said.

They headed off. Bryan Bush, the caddie, was waiting to get paid. Lucy stayed behind, the cool comfort of the player hospitality tent, watching Lexi Thompson put the finishing touches on a round of 68. Lexi Thompson played in a U.S. Open when she was 12. But that was years ago. That was in 2007. Now she’s 19. Nineteen! Michelle Wie is 24. Juli Inkster is 53 and playing in her 35th and likely last U.S. Open. It’s a long road. Out of the gate, Lucy Li was nothing but great.