The question surrounding Lucy Li, especially for those worried about items as diverse as child development and the future of the LPGA, is whether she’s a prodigy or a pest.
When does a kid with phenomenal talent and an admirable work ethic go from phenomenon to pain? Never, we hope.
Li finished her first round at the 2014 US Open at eight over, putting her in a tie for 64th place as her historic day ended.
Li's highlights came in the second half of her trip through Pinehurst. After starting on the back nine, she birdied holes No. 1 and No. 5.
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Ms. Li, age 11, seems to be enjoying what she’s accomplished, even if others aren’t. Stacy Lewis, currently atop the Rolex LPGA rankings, is one of those concerned with Li's presence at Pinehurst and said via Steve DiMeglio of USA Today:
I'm not a big fan of it. She qualified, so we can't say anything about that. But I like to see kids be successful at every level before they come out here. I just like to see kids learn how to win before they come get beat up out here. … When I found out she qualified, I said, well where does she go from here? You qualify for an Open at 11, what do you do next? If it was my kid, I wouldn't let her play in the U.S. Open qualifier at 11, but that's just me.
Years ago, I read a remark from Arnold Palmer, who was more than relatively successful at the game:
Golf is deceptively simple and endlessly complicated; it satisfies the soul and frustrates the intellect. It is at the same time rewarding and maddening—and it is without a doubt the greatest game mankind has ever invented.
Li is playing it, and obviously very well, having become the youngest ever to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Open, although not by much.
Lexi Thompson qualified and played at 12 in 2007. And Morgan Pressel made it when she was 12, although she had another birthday by the time the tournament took place in 2001. Neither they nor golf was damaged by the circumstances.
Sports and life always have been about taking the next step, one which an older generation is hesitant to endorse. At one end is a kid, symbolically shouting, "Here I come, ready or not!" At the other end are those who are warning, "slow down."
Long ago, in the era of ballads, there was a Nat King Cole hit, "Too Young." The first line was, "They try to tell us we're too young." It was about romance, but it applies to everything, doesn’t it? What is too young, anyway?
Maybe age 11 is to play tackle football or throw a curve ball, although some doctors insist that’s not why pitchers have arm trouble. But 11 is not too young to drive a Titleist 220 yards down a fairway.
Tiger Woods played in the Nissan Los Angeles Open at 16. Yes, that’s five years further along, but he still was a kid. What if Lucy were a boy? What about girls who compete on boys’ teams because their high school doesn’t have a girl's team?
At 14, Tara Lipinski became the youngest World Figure Skating Championship winner in history. Martina Hingis, 16, was the youngest No. 1 player ever in women’s tennis.
Does one get a whiff of sexism? Or in the remarks by Lewis, of jealousy?
Lewis is paraphrasing Tim Rice's lyrics from the musical "Evita": "A shame you did it all at 26; there are no mysteries now." Golf is always a mystery. What happened when Woods won three straight U.S. Amateurs? What did he do next? He won 14 majors along with many other tournaments.
Success at a young age invariably means a quest for more. Lydia Ko, who is in the Open, is only 17, and it's as if she's over the hill. And what if Li shoots a couple of 85s at Pinehurst? You guess she'll shrug it off.
The real issue is balance, and not in one's stance at the ball but in life overall. Li, who lives on the San Francisco Peninsula, likes Spider-Man, Dave & Buster's and novels about Sherlock Holmes. That sounds balanced.
Asked in the Open press interview area whether she was nervous, the 5'1" Li laughed and said, "Not really." She also outlined her perfect week: "I just want to go out there and have fun and play the best I can and I really don’t care about the outcome. It’s just I want to have fun and learn. I want to learn a lot from these great players."
Isn't that supposed to be the essence of sports, to have fun and to learn, whatever age? Kids climb rocks. Kids surf. Kids play soccer. If they have the talent and wherewithal, why shouldn't they move up, especially in golf, where normally the only damage is to the psyche? And 11-year-olds almost never get discouraged.
In 1965, nine-year-old Beverly Klass, a 4'9" fourth-grader from Southern California, was forced to join the LPGA Tour by her father—who, it should be said, abused her in pushing her toward success, as we found out years later. She never won on tour and eventually became a golf instructor.
Despite this lack of success, Klass seems to regret nothing of her preteen golfing experience.
"You know," she told Larry Dorman, then of The New York Times in 1997, about her LPGA foray, "that was a good time, a happy time. I was doing something I loved doing."
So too is Lucy Li.
"What's the worst that can happen?" asked Laura Davies of England, a four-time major winner. "She shoots a million this week and everyone says, 'Wasn't it great she was here?' So I don't think anything bad can come out of it because she's too young to worry about pressure.
"She's just having fun. She's got a week off school. It's perfect."
Art Spander, winner of the 2009 Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism from the PGA of America, has covered over 150 major golf championships. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.