PINEHURST, N.C. – Yes, her run at playing No. 2 at Pinehurst Resort and Country Club came to an end a day earlier, but the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open Championship’s youngest-ever qualifier, 11-year old Lucy Li, was walking with the final group on Saturday.
The young phenom was following two previous young participants in the USGA championship, Michelle Wie and Lexi Thompson, as they led the field and were the only players in red numbers to start the day.
Li wasn’t walking next to them on the fairway, but inside the ropes, along with media members and USGA officials and scorers.
She was at a distance but close enough to take it all in – the good and the not-so-good that each player showcased in trying to get one step closer to winning the major title.
It was a challenging day for Thompson who struggled on her back nine with four bogeys between the 11th and 16th holes, but finished with a long birdie putt on 18 to end the day at 4-over par and sat tied for seventh place at +3 overall.
After Wie and Thompson would hit their drives and progress to their next shot location, the crowd would also include Li in their supportive cheers along the outer edges of the ropes and from within the pine trees and sand-covered walkways.
“We love you Lucy,” they screamed.
As she heard their calls, the youngster smiled and even made a quick wave, not knowing if she should do so or not.
It was such an innocent and honest presentation and she remained just as appealing to everyone even though she wasn’t swinging a golf club.
That’s how she did it when she posted consecutive scores of 78 during the first two rounds of play on one of the longest course setups in women’s championship history at the ‘home of American golf’.
Her ease in answering questions after shooting 8-over par while licking an ice cream treat and answering that double and triple-bogey’s wouldn’t help her make the cut were obvious but refreshing statements coming from a pre-teen on an adult stage.
She was there to give it her best shot and to learn – and to have fun.
By all accounts, anytime she was asked that, she confirmed it.
Even Wie didn’t mind her being around as she struggled on the back nine with a double and two bogeys between the 11th and 14th holes to eventually finish 2-over par on the day, but still retaining a share of the 54-hole lead.
“I mean, you know, she’s great,” Wie said of Li.
“I saw her out there today watching most of 18 holes. And she’s just so cute. And I watched a couple of holes yesterday on TV watching her play. She’s really talented. She’s got a really bright future ahead of her. I’m really excited for her that she gets the experience. I ran into her in the locker room and talked to her little bit. And I hope she comes out tomorrow and watch. It’s great to see her out there.”
Wie knows what garnering so much attention can do to a young player, both good and bad.
It’s all that she’s known since she began playing in high-profile tournaments at a similarly young age as well.
Thus, it was refreshing to hear the support Wie provided Li even while trying to focus on winning her first career major and following her most difficult day of play.
Her willingness to answer questions about a junior golfer who was no longer a factor in the tournament, but one who she knew was looking up to her, was humble.
She didn’t have to do it, but she did it, and with poise.
One media member described the attention that Li received all week as an opportunity for Wie to fly under the radar, so to speak.
No extra pressure to win, even while leading after 36 holes and co-leading after 54.
It was a simple approach that Li used, knowingly or not, as she rarely ever looked down or defeated following her rounds of play.
Tired and drained, yes, but sad, no.
Maybe not so coincidentally, it was the same way Wie looked while losing the lead at one point and then finishing with part possession of it.
“I’m just going to go out there – just going to try as hard as I can,” Wie said.
“I think that I’m really grateful that I have another opportunity at this. I also feel like as an American I just feel very proud that I’m in contention. And I will play with pride tomorrow. And I’m going to have fun.”
What better example and memory could an 11-year old take away from a 24-year old player who’s walked in similar shoes and was willing to share her journey while contending for such a prestigious and career-defining title.