PINEHURST, N.C. — Hannah Pietila's father was walking the fairways Monday with his daughter during her first practice round at Pinehurst No. 2. He was supposed to be marking off yardage in anticipation of his caddying duties for the 69th U.S. Women's Open, which begins today.
But his mind kept wandering to the preteen girl in the ruffled skirt and pigtails playing alongside his 18-year-old daughter.
For Aaron Pietila, observing 11-year-old Lucy Li unleashed a flood of memories of his daughter when she was Li's age. Nodding in Li's direction, he said: "It's pretty neat to watch her. She hits it almost like she doesn't care where it goes."
Li, the youngest player ever to qualify for the tournament, is a home-schooled sixth-grader who divides her time between Redwood Shores, Calif., outside San Francisco, and Miami. She took up the sport at age 7 because her older brother, now at Princeton, played on his high school team. From the beginning, the game has come easily to her.
Her parents, Warren and Amy, accompanied her to Florida to meet golf instructor Jim McLean, whose students have included Lexi Thompson, who won her first major this year at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, and Cristie Kerr, a two-time major winner. Though McLean initially was reluctant to work with someone so young, Li won him over with her skill and enthusiasm.
During the winter, Li works with McLean in Florida and lives with her aunt. Last year, as a 10-year-old, she 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. In April she won her age division at the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship held at Augusta National ahead of the Masters.
She punched her ticket to the Open by posting rounds of 74 and 68 in a May sectional qualifier in Half Moon Bay, Calif., the site of an LPGA event in 2008. She was the medalist, finishing seven strokes ahead of the runnerup, 16-year-old amateur Kathleen Scavo.
Li said it was her idea to enter the qualifier. "I didn't care if I qualified or not," she said. "I just wanted to go for the experience."
The weird and wonderful part of getting a glimpse of the possible future of women's golf is how it transports people back in time. Michelle Wie, who made the cut in her first U.S. Women's Open, in 2003, at age 13, said she met Li on Sunday and was struck by her off-the-charts cute quotient.
"The first thought that came into my mind was, 'Oh, I wish I looked that cute when I was 11,' " said Wie, 24.
Thompson, 19, was 12 in 2007 when she became the youngest to qualify for the tournament. She shot 82 in the second round at Pine Needles, a few miles down the road from Pinehurst No. 2, and missed the cut.
"My experience at age 12 helped me so much," Thompson said. "If this is what (Li) wants to do for her life, she will learn off the other players and see what she needs to improve on."
In her practice rounds, Li has consistently been 50 yards shorter off the tee than the pros. "It goes farther in tournaments when there's adrenaline," she said.
Her caddie, Bryan Bush, a former club pro who lives in Pinehurst, said he would not be surprised if she made the cut. "Oh, no," he said. "We will be here Saturday."
Bush sat down with Li for 90 minutes this month and said, "I was blown away with her knowledge of the game at age 11, because I sure didn't have it."
Li had read up on the golf course architect, Donald Ross. She told Bush she knows the Pinehurst No. 2 greens were designed to repel golf balls rather than receive them.
Li giggled throughout her 20-minute news conference Tuesday and charmed her audience with her answers, but not everyone is thrilled she is here. World No. 1 Stacy Lewis, who finished college before turning pro, said, "If it was my kid, I wouldn't let her play in the U.S. Open qualifier at 11. When I found out she qualified, I said, 'Well, where does she go from here? What do you do next?' "
Who knows? Certainly not Li, who said, "The game's going to take me wherever it's going to take me, so I really don't care that much."