Lucy Li is the youngest player at this week’s U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship. At 10 years, 8 months and 16 days old, she stands in sharp contrast to the college players and women amateurs in the field – some of whom are old enough to be Lucy’s mother.
On course, the 4-foot-11, 80-pound child with a bow in her hair holds her own. Her average drives are between 200 and 210 yards and her short game is sound. But what’s different about the youngster from Redwood City, Calif., is her childlike wonder of the world.
She hops and skips down fairways and sometimes sings songs while walking to her golf ball, snapping her tiny fingers along the way.
Li’s aunt fed her orange slices while Li sat in a chair and thoughtfully answered questions from the media. When a volunteer walked by and playfully tapped her on the left shoulder and then quickly moved to her right so she wouldn’t immediately see him, Li broke into laughter.
Even when Li carded an opening-round score of 75 and had to add a two-stroke penalty to her scorecard, she was not rattled. Li, who regularly taps down spike marks on the practice green, made the mistake of tapping down marks before she made her putt during the competition. That Rules violation added two penalty strokes and gave her a round of 77.
"She was disappointed, of course," said her mother, Amy Zeng Li. "But Lucy learned from it. She didn’t cry or get upset. She was still jumping around and having fun."
That element of having a good time in a game she has played for 2½ years, as well as qualifying for a national championship, impresses even her fellow contestants.
"I remember myself at 10 years old playing in a swimming pool," said Chirapat Jao-Javanil, 20, of Thailand, who won the 2012 NCAA Division I individual championship for the University of Oklahoma. "It’s great to see someone so young in the field."
Li also got a nod from Allisen Corpuz, 15, of Honolulu, who became the youngest competitor in USGA championship history when she qualified for the 2008 WAPL at age 10 years, 3 months, 9 days – surpassing Michelle Wie, who earned a spot at the 2000 WAPL at age 10 years, 8 months and 23 days.
"I would say she is probably nervous, but excited, as well," said Corpuz. "When I qualified as a 10-year-old, it was my first USGA event and I was being outdriven by 30 yards."
But if Li felt any nerves in her opening round, they didn’t show. When asked what she thought about playing in her first USGA championship, a big smile spread across her face as she swung her legs in her chair, kicking her women’s size 7½ shoes against the chair legs.
"It’s cool," she said. "I like the short game and creative shots – interesting shots."
And what are interesting shots?
"You know, like the flop shot or shots buried in the lip of a bunker," she said. "They are fun to practice, but I don’t know about them in a tournament."
That idea of keeping golf fun is important to her family as the youngster’s game continues to advance. Though she will not turn 11 until October, Li has already posted a low round of 1-under 71.
She has won three consecutive tournaments on the 2013 South Florida PGA Junior Tour; finished fifth in the 2012 California Women’s Amateur Championship; won the 2011 Mizuno Winter Junior Championship in Hong Kong while visiting her grandfather; and finished as the 2011 Player of the Year on the Future Champions Golf (FCG) Callaway World Series.
Li also became the youngest player in the 45-year history of the California Women’s Amateur to make the cut in 2011. That year, she also won the FCG World Championship, as well as the San Diego Junior Masters Championship and the Junior Golf Association of Northern California (JGANC) All-Star Championship.
If you ask Li what she enjoys doing the most away from golf, she will say reading – both Archie comic books and educational books. Li enters the sixth grade this fall and says she loves English, science and math classes at school.
She also likes to put things together – such as assembling IKEA furniture and floor lamps for her mother. And she enjoys arts and crafts, especially making necklaces and bracelets.
Li has also taken ballet and tap-dancing classes. But perhaps her curiosity and adventure-seeking spirit is best revealed by the fact that she used to dive off a 10-meter diving board.
"I dove, but I couldn’t swim at the time," said Li with a big laugh.
Thus, by the time she took up golf after following her older brother around the course, she was accustomed to jumping in over her head. And what would be a humbling experience to most became just another challenge for Li to conquer.
One day, while waiting for her brother Luke to finish playing a golf tournament, young Lucy took her first swing with a golf club. She choked down, swung the club and sent the ball sailing through the air.
"We realized something special that day," said her mother. "So we took her to teacher Jim McLean for a lesson and ability assessment. He put golf balls in different places and asked her to hit them, and she did."
And that was the beginning of Lucy Li’s golf career. Through McLean, Li has met LPGA player Lexi Thompson and PGA stars Keegan Bradley, Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and her favorite, Rory McIlroy. She has watched all of them practice and compete and has learned about each player on the Internet since their introductions.
"I like Rory’s game and he’s very nice," said Li, who met the 2011 U.S. Open champion from Northern Ireland at Doral Resort & Spa Miami. "When you watch the men play, their games are very interesting because they hit balls all over the place and sometimes have to get out of the woods."
As for her instructor to the stars, Li said she does not really care that he is a famous teacher. McLean sends encouraging emails to the young player through her mother and reminds her of things to bring with her to the course each time she competes.
"He tells me to do fun shots," she said. "And he tells me to remember to have fun. I think that’s important."
That advice is important to the player who is trying to continue decorating her father’s den with trophies, medals, ribbons and awards from her successes in the game. And it could be seen as sound advice for a junior player who is just learning to compete at the highest level while watching Disney movies on her iPad before championship rounds.
Does Li want to play college golf someday? Or play professionally?
"I don’t know, just wherever it takes me," she said.
Li paused and then once again broke into a big smile as she thought about her first appearance alongside older players in the WAPL.
"Obviously, when you play with older girls, they’re more serious, so I’m learning things this week," she said. Me? I like to talk."
And once again, Lucy Li broke into an infectious giggle as she gobbled one more orange slice.
Lisa D. Mickey is a Florida-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.