PINEHURST — Lucy Li is a breath of fresh air in what sometimes can be the stuffy atmosphere of professional golf.
During her press conference Thursday afternoon after shooting an opening round, 8-over 78, Li did so with a Starburst ice cream bar in her hand.
And why shouldn’t she? Li is only 11 years of age and the youngest player to ever qualify for the U.S. Women’s Open.
She doesn’t have the pressure to make the cut and win prize money to put food on her table or pay a mortgage. She’s just 11. Kids don’t have to worry about things like that.
Li’s biggest concern during her time in front of the microphones was trying to beat the clock before the hot Carolina sun turned her ice cream bar into a colorful liquid mess in her hands.
“It’s good. It’s melting, though,” Li said about her after-round treat.
Li had a plan for the rest of the day too. And it involved keeping cool the only way an 11-year-old could dream up.
“Eat some more ice cream,” Li said laughing.
While Li was keeping things light with the media, she also played a solid round of golf around a Pinehurst No. 2 course that could bring the top players in the world down to their knees. Li had a triple bogey, two double bogeys and three bogeys on the day, but countered those with two birdies.
Not a bad showing for someone who was making their first appearance at a major golf tournament. And enjoying every second of it.
“It was a lot of fun. I kind of struggled today, but it was great,” she said. “I’m happy with how I played. I mean, it’s 8-over, it’s not bad. But I was 7-over in three holes, so that’s 1-over in 15 holes. So, yeah. I just need to get rid of the big numbers.”
Even when describing how difficult and frustrating the course can be for a player, Li makes it sounds like as if she is giving a book report in class.
“I like the golf course. It’s just — it’s tough. You miss the ball by three feet and it could be like a two- or three-shot difference,” Li said. “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. I like the golf course, though, it’s good.”
Li is 11 shots behind the leader and No. 1 player in the world, Stacy Lewis. Just as Martin Kaymer did in winning last week’s tournament, Lewis avoided penciling a bogey on her scorecard and shot a 3-under 67.
Lewis made comments earlier in the week that had several scratching their head when asked about Li. Lewis feels Li may not be suited to compete on a big stage like the U.S. Open.
“She qualified, so we can’t say anything about that. You qualify for an open, it’s a great thing,” Lewis said. “But I just — I like to see kids be successful at every level before they come out here. I like to — I would like to maybe see her play some U.S. Ams, play the Pub Links and get into match play, where you have some experience. I just like to see kids learn how to win before they come get beat up out here.”
Perhaps Lewis was saying what others in the locker room are thinking but are afraid to say out loud. Lewis admits she doesn’t have the answers to how players as young as Li can be kept away from attempting to qualify. She thinks all of that should trickle down from the parents.
“I don’t think you can put any restrictions on it. I don’t think — I don’t think that’s the answer,” Lewis said. “Obviously we have our handicap restrictions and everything, so I don’t think you can put a restriction on it. But I don’t know if from the parents’ side you think you kind of wonder — when I found out she qualified, I said, well where does she go from here? What do you do next? You qualify for an Open at 11, what do you do next? You know? So it’s kind of — I don’t know. If it was my kid, I wouldn’t let her play in the U.S. Open qualifier at 11, but that’s just me.”
Reach sports editor Shawn Stinson at 910-997-3111, ext. 14 or on Twitter @scgolfer.