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Prodigy in pigtails

Lucy Li practices Tuesday. She’s the youngest player to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Open.

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Lucy Li practices Tuesday. She’s the youngest player to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Open.

Compiled from tbt* news services

If Lucy Li handles Pinehurst No. 2 and the U.S. Women's Open with the ease she handles a news conference, she should be fine.

Forget that Li, an 11-year-old sixth-grader from Redwood Shores, Calif., is the youngest player ever to qualify for the Women's Open. On Tuesday, she answered questions from a room of adults with a confidence and candor that belied her age.

Li gave some thoughtful answers and some surprising answers. There were even giggles.

Has she ever been intimidated on a golf course?

"No. I just don't care that much," Li said, inciting laughter in the interview room.

Does anything about playing in the Women's Open make her nervous?

"Not really," she said. "I really don't care about the outcome, it's just I want to have fun and learn.

There even was a question about the books she reads.

"I love Rick Riordan, so I read all of his books," she quickly replied of the Percy Jackson & the Olympians series author. "And I like reading Sherlock Holmes, too."

Li is listed at 5 feet 2, which may be generous. She has braces and favors pigtails. Michelle Wie, one of the LPGA's biggest names, said of her first impression of Li: "She looks so darn cute."

She belongs

In 1967, the U.S. Golf Association invited 10-year-old prodigy Beverly Klass to compete in the Women's Open. Li, however, had to qualify.

In the USGA sectional tournament at Half Moon Bay, Calif., Li finished at even-par 142 and was the medalist by eight shots. Last year, as a 10-year-old, Li became the youngest qualifier for the U.S. Women's Amateur Championship and the youngest to advance to match play at the U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links.

Then in April, she won her age division at the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship, which is held at Augusta National ahead of the Masters.

"It's awesome, right?" Li said. "I mean Pinehurst and Augusta National in like two months."

LPGA pro Beatriz Recari played with Li during a practice round at Pinehurst on Tuesday and was impressed.

"I think she's fearless. I think she's going to do well," Recari said.

"She's shorter than everybody else but she hit it pretty solid," Recari said. "It's a long course but I don't think she's afraid of hitting woods into the greens."

Indeed. In practice, Li was consistently been 50 yards shorter off the tee than the pros.

"It goes farther in tournaments when there's adrenaline," said Li, who hits her driver 230 yards.

Hollis Kelley, an instructor at Cinnabar Hills Golf Club in San Jose, said Li plays that course often when she is in California.

"For her size, she has extraordinary power," Kelley said. "Because of her stature, at this point she couldn't overpower a golf course.

"But pound for pound, she's very powerful. She has a great short game. Her game is pretty boring. She doesn't make a lot of mistakes. She shoots a couple under par and it just seems like it's an everyday thing for her."

Fast learner

Renowned teacher Jim McLean has coached child prodigies at his golf schools around the world, but even he thought the 7-year-old Li was too young to train when her mother first called him. McLean changed his mind when he saw the family's commitment and Li's love for golf.

"I couldn't turn them down," he said.

As he has with many young golfers when they arrive, McLean gave Li the Dr. Seuss book, Oh, The Places You'll Go!

Li not only read it. She memorized it.

"She's incredibly smart," McLean said. "And an incredibly fast learner."

That much is clear. Little else about Li's life is. Her family, which came to California from Hong Kong, has declined interview requests.

McLean said Li is homeschooled through an online Stanford University program and has spend winters training with him in Miami, where she is watched over by her aunt, Tao Zeng, an eye doctor. The rest of the time Li spends in Silicon Valley with her father, Warren Li, a computer consultant, and her mother, Amy Zeng, a former table-tennis player who works in the technology industry, McLean said. Li's brother, Luke, studies at Princeton.

McLean said Li's mother tried pushing her toward other activities. But Luke played golf competitively, and she wanted to be just like him.

"She started to like golf, and then all she wanted to do was golf," McLean said. "It didn't come that easy for her. She worked."

Golf knowledge

Bryan Bush, a local Pinehurst caddie who will carry Li's bag this week, said he was recommended to Li's parents.

"I happened to luck out with the history maker," Bush said. "She's the real deal."

Bush, 38, said he was stunned to learn of Li's golf knowledge. She had read books about Donald Ross, who designed and built the No. 2 course, as well as such famous golf architects as Alister MacKenzie.

"I was kind of blown away, really," Bush said. "She knew how Ross built the (No. 2) greens. The key phrase for us to always remember, she said, was 'Ross built the green to repel balls, not to receive them,' and that you need to hit the right spots."

Not that Li's worried. "Her short game is so ridiculous, it's fun to watch," Bush said.

Sometimes, Bush said, he has to laugh. "You're watching an 11-year-old hit a 5-wood as well as I can hit a pitching wedge," he said, adding: "I'm in complete awe all the time. The best part is she's having fun."

Her decision

Stacy Lewis, the top-ranked women's player in the world, is not convinced that an 11-year-old should be playing in the Open.

"I'm not a big fan of it," Lewis said. "She qualified, so we can't say anything about that. ... But I just like to see kids be successful at every level before they come out here."

Li said the decision to attempt to qualify for the Open was hers and not her parents'.

"I just wanted to go for the experience," she said.

Lewis, who finished college before turning pro, wondered: "Well, where does she go from here? What do you do next?"

Who knows? Certainly not Li.

"The game's going to take me wherever it's going to take me," she said, "so I really don't care that much."

Contributing: Associated Press, New York Times, Raleigh News & Observer, USA Today.

U.S. Women's Open

When/where: Today-Sunday, Pinehurst Resort and Country Club, Pinehurst, N.C.

Course: Pinehurst No. 2

Purse: $4 million, highest total purse in LPGA history

Defending champ: Inbee Park

TV: Today-Friday, 3 p.m., ESPN2; Saturday-Sunday, 3 p.m., NBC-8.

Prodigy in pigtails 06/18/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, June 18, 2014 8:30pm]
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