Golf has a long and storied tradition of young prodigies. Players like Tiger Woods and Bobby Jones have transitioned from “talented youngsters” to being among the greatest players to ever tee up a ball. What you don’t often hear about are the ones who didn’t make it. For every Phil Mickelson or Jordan Spieth, there are thousands of Ty Tryons, Tadd Fujikawas and Eddie Pearces.
So when this past Monday 11 year old Lucy Li qualified for the US Women’s Open, it didn’t come as a shock that many thought she was too young, with some even implying that it was child exploitation. I’m not going to pretend to have a nuanced enough knowledge on Women’s amateur golf to decide on whether there should be an age restriction. What I know, however, is that this isn’t John Daly getting yet another sponsors exemption or some half-brained publicity stunt; Lucy Li earned this chance.
Lucy fired round of 74 and 68 on the 6200 yard layout at Half Moon Bay on her way to a 7 shot victory. You read that right; Li won her qualifier by 7 shots. How impressive is it that this girl all 5’2″ tall and 11 years old, beat her competition by 7 shots? Look at the names of other sectional qualifiers for your answer. Britain’s most decorated female golfer and 20 time LPGA Champion Laura Davies finished second, 3 shots behind the winner of the New Jersey sectional. LPGA TOUR members Kristy McPherson, Sue Kim and Dori Carter all came out of the Virginia event. Marissa Steen, who has two 2014 victories on the Symetra Tour and leads the race for the season title won the Texas sectional.
The US Open and US Women’s Open are the purest of events in American golf as you have to play your way in to the field. 1702 women applied to compete for 53 spots and the Jim McLean protege not only won one, she dominated the field on her way in.
With the debate of age restrictions on golf and professional sports in general renewed, it seems relevant to mention that Lucy’s coach, Jim McLean, has a pretty solid track record with young female golf prodigies. McLean started working with two time major champion Christie Kerr when she was just 13 and reigning Kraft Nabisco champion Lexi Thompson when she was 8. McLean himself claims that his initial reaction when approached to mentor the then 7 year old Li, was one of trepidation and skepticism. He relented, he claims, after seeing her on the range and noting how advanced she already was at such a young age. It’s also worth mentioning, as Ron Sirak notes in Golf Digest, that it appears that parents are finally “getting it” when it comes to managing careers and expectations.
The idea of an 11 year old girl taking on the worlds best on such a beloved piece of ground at Pinehurst, is not one that seems to be sitting well with the stuffy traditionalists of the golf world. But the fact remains that Lucy Li won her way in to a tournament that she entered. She earned the right to tee it up alongside her idols, and until someone can demonstrate the future destroying catastrophe this is purported to be, let’s just let the girl go play some golf.