PINEHURST, N.C. — She’s got nerves of steel, golf talent beyond her tender years, and a precocious flair for eye-catching fashion: 11-year-old Lucy Li, the youngest qualifier in U.S. Women’s Open history, looked entirely at home as she teed-off at Pinehurst No. 2.
Despite a three bad holes in North Carolina, which meant she finished her round with an eight-over-par 78, Li impressed onlookers with a composed round that saw her bounce back quickly from disappointing shots.
She left the course smiling, having followed up two double-bogeys and a triple-bogey with assured play — including birdies at the first and fifth.
“It was great,” Li told reporters Thursday. “What I was so happy about in my round, (was that) after I got doubles and triples, I was able to get it back. And I got a lot of pars after that.”
Heading into the tournament, Li said her only ambition was to “have fun and play the best I can.”
But the California native can also count growing experience in her time at Pinehurst, not least how to deal with the perilous course — which hosted the men’s U.S. Open last week.
“It’s tough,” said Li. “You miss the ball by three feet and it could be like a two- or three-shot difference.
“You could hit it three feet more right and you’d be putting this far away for birdie. Or you could be in the bunker and struggling for a bogey.”
Tour pros had raised doubts about whether the child amateur — still wearing braces and standing on a box to address the media after her opening round — should be subjected to the pressure and expectation of such a big professional event.
“When I found out she qualified, I said, ‘Well, where does she go from here? You qualify for an Open at 11, what do you do next?’ ” asked world No. 1 Stacy Lewis on Wednesday.
The 29-year-old added: “If it was my kid, I wouldn’t let her play in the U.S. Open qualifier at 11, but that’s just me.”
Pressure seemed to be the least of Li’s worries as she chatted with the older members of her playing group and feasted on an ice cream during the post-round press conference.
“She is so mature for her age,” said 23-year-old Jessica Wallace, who played with Li and Catherine O’Donnell — the latter also shot 78.
“There were times when I felt more immature than she is. Catherine and I had fun talking to her. She’s so mature, it’s like talking to another 23-year-old.”
Li became officially the youngest player to qualify after securing her place at an event at Half Moon Bay Golf Club near her home in California.
She beats fellow American Lexi Thompson, who qualified for the 2007 Open aged 12, to become the youngest qualifier.
But Li is not the youngest to compete at the tournament — Beverley Klass competed in 1967, without having to qualify, aged just 10.
While Canadian Wallace carded 74 to be on course to make the halfway cut, seven shots behind first-round leader Lewis, Li and O’Donnell were outside the projected top-60 ahead of their second rounds Friday.
But they were in good company.
New Zealand’s Lydia Ko — who at 14 was the youngest player to win a pro title — carded a first-round 76, as did South Korea’s two-time U.S. Open champion Inbee Park.