Stratham, N.H. – He was only 14 and Jim Liu’s golfing résumé already sparkled with accomplishments. There were four U.S. Kids World Championships. There was the 59 at age 9 in a Plantation Junior Golf Tour event in Orlando, Fla., which prompted congratulatory notes from Fred Couples and Chris DiMarco.
Most impressive, there was his victory in the 2010 U.S. Junior Amateur Championship at Egypt Valley Country Club in Ada, Mich. when he broke the record of his idol, Tiger Woods, to become the youngest winner in championship history.
After that happened, the Smithtown, N.Y. resident was being hailed as a golf prodigy. Some newspapers even labeled him the next Tiger. And people were speculating that it could be Liu, not Jordan Spieth, who would collect multiple U.S. Junior Amateur trophies.
Fast forward two years, and Liu, now 16, is still searching for his next triumph of any kind. His defense at last year’s U.S. Junior Amateur at Gold Mountain in Bremerton, Wash.ended with a second-round match play loss to the eventual runner-up, Chelso Barrett. He’s back this week at The Golf Club of New England looking for that elusive victory. And he’s making some noise.
He blistered the outward nine on Tuesday for 33, recording five birdies in the first eight holes, including a stretch of four straight beginning at the fifth. Another half-roll on a 15-foot putt at the fourth hole and he would have rattled off six consecutive birdies.
“I starting hitting it pure and making the putts. It was just an easy stretch of golf,” he said.
Double bogeys at the ninth and 13th holes, both caused by wayward tee shots and suddenly windy conditions, stifled his momentum. Nonetheless, his 3-under 141 total (after Tuesday’s 71) was good enough to share medalist honors with Shintaro Ban of San Jose, Calif. and 2011 Junior Amateur semifinalist Nicolas Echavarria of Colombia.
“I’ve always known that I could win, that it’s just a matter of playing well,” he said. “I’m confident. Once you get to match play, everything is reset and it’s anyone’s game. Everyone here is qualified for this championship. They’ve all shot in the 60s before, so it just takes them playing well and you not being on top of your game and you’re out. I just have to be patient. I’ve played a lot of match play, so I think that will help me.”
It’s not like he hasn’t been in contention over the past year. Ask him how he’s played and he rattles off a succession of close calls. A pair of playoff losses at the St. Augustine Amateur in Florida last October and at the New Year’s Invitational in St. Petersburg, Fla. in January. A 66 on the final day at the American Junior Golf Association’s Puerto Rico Junior Open that left him one stroke back. Two more runner-up finishes.
A stumble down the stretch at the 2011 Junior Players Championships at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra, Fla. when he went bogey, double-bogey after being tied for the lead with four holes remaining. A Top 5 at the Junior Orange Bowl International Championship. In all, he’s had five runners-up and eight Top-6 finishes in junior and amateur events.
But there are no photos of him hoisting the hardware. That could change on Saturday.
“It’s been kind of a long drought,” he said. “The Junior Players was especially tough, because I thought I had that tournament in the bag. I just had a couple of bad swings down the stretch. It certainly does get frustrating. It just takes patience. Eventually, I’ll break though.”
Liu said on Monday that poor tee shots have been holding him back from winning. On Tuesday, they led to both double bogeys, even though he played 3-wood and 5-wood on the pair that caused problems. His drive on the ninth settled into the woods and forced a pitch back to the fairway. His tee shot on the 13th was more painful. It failed to clear the hazard and could not be found, forcing Liu to take the long, lonely walk back to the tee.
“I hit it dead straight where I was aiming [on 13] and it just fell out of the sky,” he said. “I thought it was going to be just on top of the bunker or worst case in the bunker. It disappeared. I guess the wind just killed it.
“It was kind of tough because I played so well on the front nine, but two doubles is a pretty severe change of events. From then on I tried to start fresh. I hit it well again. I just couldn’t convert down the stretch.”
Plenty has gone right this week for Liu, starting when his sister, Jing, had to decline caddie duties due to work commitments. Lui signed up for a local caddie and was given 59-year-old Neal Kelley, a former winner of state amateur tournaments and a member at The Golf Club of New England.
“When I got on site everybody told me I had the best caddie here,” he said. “He’s great. He knows exactly what to do and say out there.”
Liu first played in this championship at 13. Now he’s the veteran at the ripe old age of 16. Many of his competitors, including two-time champion and current World No. 1 amateur Jordan Spieth, have moved on to collegiate golf, a few have turned pro. “It’s kind of strange seeing new faces,” he said.
He has made a career of following in Woods’ footsteps, from seeking the coaching counsel of Woods’s first instructor, John Anselmo, the now 90-year-old golf pro from Southern California, to his decision to attend Stanford University in the fall of 2013. Might a second U.S. Junior Amateur this week be the latest step in that direction?
“My game’s there. I’ve just got to put all the pieces to the puzzle,” he said. “Hopefully, I can do it this week.”
Rob Duca is a New England-based freelance writer who is contributing to USGA.org this week.