Billy Payne wore a smile as wide as the Augusta National fairways as he watched eight kids file out of the room with their trophies from the inaugural Drive, Chip and Putt Championship the Sunday before the Masters. "We're going to be hearing from some of these kids again," he said.
Yes, but six weeks later?
An 11-year-old who won her age group in the youth competition before the Masters has played her way into the U.S. Women's Open next month at Pinehurst No. 2 in North Carolina. Lucy Li, a sixth-grader with braces and a sharp short game, made history Monday at Half Moon Bay, Calif., with rounds of 74-68 on the par-72 course to become the youngest to qualify. Not only did she earn a spot at the biggest event in women's golf, she won the 36-hole qualifier by seven shots.
The record belonged to Lexi Thompson, who was 12 when she made it to the 2007 Women's Open at Pine Needles in Southern Pines, N.C. It's only fitting that when Li signed up for the Drive, Chip and Putt, she listed Thompson as among her favorite players.
Li, from the suburbs south of San Francisco, still won't be the youngest. Beverly Klass was 10 when she played in 1967, but that was when the Open didn't have qualifying.
Judy Rankin was a 14-year-old prodigy from Missouri when she entered the 1959 U.S. Women's Open in Pittsburgh. "When I went to register, they asked me if I was registering for my mother," she said Tuesday. "I weighed 80 pounds. I remember the first tee was way up high. I was shaking. I was so scared, so nervous. I thought I could fall off. I didn't even make the cut. I was probably ill-prepared to be playing. But the next year, I was low amateur."
"This is ridiculous," ESPN analyst and former LPGA star Dottie Pepper said Tuesday, more amazed than concerned. Earlier in the day, Pepper was on Twitter and tried to get her head around an 11-year-old teeing it up at Pinehurst No. 2 when she noted that Li's date of birth was "THIS CENTURY. Whoa!"
Rankin and Pepper both attributed the increasing achievements by teens — preteens in Li's case — to modern equipment and coaching.
Li, who began playing at was 7, is coached by Jim McLean. She set a record last year in the U.S. Women's Amateur as the youngest qualifier at 10. She also was the youngest in the U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links to reach match play, losing in the first round to a college player.
"For people with talent, regardless of age, today's equipment is making the game a lot easier to learn," Rankin said. "For talented people, they are learning the game quicker and easier. That has a big bearing on it."
Rankin also points to the very best in golf being on television so often, and the fact that kids copy what they see.
"No one in the world is better at mimicking than children," she said. "I can go way back to a friend of mine from U.S. Amateur days, Helen Sigel Wilson. She always said the way to teach a kid how to play good golf is only let them see great players. They can figure it out."
Qualifying continues through May 30, and Alexa Pano, 9, has entered the last qualifying tournament in Vero Beach.