PINEHURST, N.C. — Lucy Li showed her age only when she finished her historic round Thursday at the U.S. Women’s Open.
Just like any 11-year-old, she went straight for an ice cream.
The youngest qualifier ever at the Women’s Open played a grown-up game at Pinehurst No. 2, except for three holes that made her eight-over 78 look a lot worse than it was, and stretched the odds of her becoming the youngest player to make the cut.
“She looks 11. She doesn’t talk 11. And she doesn’t hit the ball like she’s 11,” said Catherine O’Donnell, who played with her in a sunbaked opening round on a course that only four days ago hosted the men’s U.S. Open.
The sixth-grader from the Bay Area was the star attraction, right down to her Stars & Stripes outfit to celebrate the occasion. She wore a mid-drift shirt patterned after the American flag, with a similar motif for a skirt, complete with silver stars that matched the color of her braces.
Li wound up 11 shots behind Stacy Lewis, the No. 1 player in the world who opened with a 67. But one moment was telling.
The kid made a seven-foot birdie putt on the par-5 fifth hole and headed to the next tee, her braided pigtails swinging with each step. The media and a large gallery followed her right past the adjacent green, where hardly anyone noticed Lewis making her way around Pinehurst with no bogeys.
Only this was more than just a sideshow.
Li missed only one fairway — by less than a yard. Even though she hit fairway metals into half of the holes, she rarely got out of position. Now, if she could only take back three shots that led to big numbers.
“It was a lot of fun. I kind of struggled today, but it was great,” Li said, pausing to lick her ice cream between answers. “I mean, it’s eight-over. It’s not bad. But I was seven-over in three holes, so that’s one-over in 15 holes. So yeah, I just need to get rid of the big numbers.”
Li had the same score as O’Donnell, Natalie Gulbis and Jessica Korda, a two-time winner on the LPGA Tour this year. There already were 11 rounds in the 80s when she finished.
Perhaps most remarkable about her round, besides the 13 pars and two birdies, was how she bounced back from mistakes.
“That’s what I was so happy about in my round,” she said. “Because after I got doubles and triples, I was able to get it back. Like I made a good stretch of holes after the double on the first hole. And after the triple, I birdied No. 5. And I got a lot of pars after that.”
Li left a tough angle for her third shot on the par-5 10th hole and came up short and into a bunker. The sand shot looked reasonable until it kept rolling off the back of the green. She chipped with her wedge (a pink shaft) to about eight feet and missed the putt to take double bogey.
Another double bogey came on the 450-yard 16th hole, when her fairway metal went into a bunker some 20 yards short of an elevated green, leaving a shot so hard even the best men would have a tough time. Her bunker shot was not strong enough, and she wound up missing a seven-foot bogey putt.
Asked to have one swing back, it would be the wedge on the short third hole. She went left of the flag, and it trickled off the turtleback green — the signature of this Donald Ross course — and into a bunker. She blasted out over the green, chipped on to 18 feet and three-putted for triple bogey.
But she made a pair of smooth birdies — a 6-iron to 15 feet on No. 1, and a wedge to a right pin position on the fifth hole — along with some tough par saves. The best came at the 426-yard eighth hole, when her 5-wood from 198 yards went long and over a steep slope right of the green. She lofted a pitch perfectly, and it rolled six feet by the cup. This is the same hole where John Daly putted off the green so many times in 1999 that he whacked the ball with his putter when it was still moving and rang up an 11.
Along the way in a 5 1⁄2-hour round, Li often plopped to the ground in the shade and sat until it was time to hit, one time munching from a cup of fruit.
“I normally sit down even more than that,” she said, giggling as always.
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