Lucy Li may not be around for the weekend after shooting an 8-over 78 in Thursday’s opening round at Pinehurst to sit 11 shots off the bogey-free pace set by 18-hole leader Stacy Lewis. But the youngest player to qualify for a U.S. Women’s Open had her 11-year-old priorities straight afterward.
"Eat some more ice cream," Li, holding a melting Starburst Strawberry Sorbet popsicle, responded candidly to the question about how she planned to spend the rest of the day. Reporters' laughter ensued.
It remains to be seen how the youngster (maybe if we say it enough, it will sink in that she’s ELEVEN!) will handle herself should she miss the cut on Friday, but indications were she would do just fine.
You know... I'm not afraid to say it. This week could be a huge embarrassment for Lucy Li.— Adam Fonseca (@AdamFonsecaGolf) June 18, 2014
"It was a lot of fun. I kind of struggled today, but it was great," said Li, decked out in red, white, and blue in honor of her national championship, after finishing her first day on the big stage 10 strokes back of Michelle Wie, who made four birdies on her back nine for an opening 68. "My score, I'm happy with how I played. I mean, it's 8-over, it's not bad."
And if you believe a swelling gallery is going to unnerve this kid, think again.
"I play better with the crowds," said Li, who conceded she was a "little bit" shaky on the first tee but quickly got over her stage fright. "I wasn’t that nervous."
Lewis, the top-ranked women’s player in the world, has made no secret of her objections to someone so young playing in the event before working her way up through the ranks.
"I just think at any age to qualify for the U.S. Open is impressive, it doesn’t matter if you’re 11 or if you’re 30," Lewis said last month. "I don’t know, it’s not something I would encourage kids to do. I like to see kids get better at every level, win as a junior, win at college golf, win in high school golf and then come out here and play. But one week out of the year, let’s do it, have some fun with it, but I hope it’s not a trend we see continuing."
Whether it is or not, the "mature beyond her years" Li charmed her playing partners, Jessica Wallace and Catherine O’Donnell.
"I thought she handled herself really well out there. Her first U.S. Open, she's 11 years old. Who knows what people were expecting out of her this week," said Wallace, a 23-year-old qualifier who graduated from the University of Colorado. "And I thought she played the course well. She's capable of playing well on this course. She hits the ball a good distance for an 11-year-old. So it was a pleasant surprise playing with her."
Most impressive to Wallace, who carded a 74, were Li’s accuracy into the greens with woods and hybrids as well as her short game.
"She had good feels with her hands, good putter, just a very solid player," added Wallace, who had never played in front of such a large gallery before. "I know what a big deal Lucy is coming out here, so, hey, I'm totally fine coat-tailing off of people wanting to take a look at her."
Wallace also acknowledged Li’s ability to rebound from an opening-hole 7 on the par-5 10th with two straight pars.
"It doesn't matter, you know, what she makes on a hole," she said. "She’s very focused on the next hole, next shot."
O’Donnell, who has made two cuts in six starts on the Symetra Tour this season, was stunned by Li’s ability.
"She's way better than I was expecting. … She hits it out there farther than I was expecting to. She hit it by me twice," reported O’Donnell, who matched Li’s 78 and was in a tie for 111th.
"She doesn’t hit the ball like she’s 11."