RANCHO MIRAGE, Calif. – The ANA Inspiration turned into Amateur Hour early on Thursday. And that was a great thing.
Lucy Li, last seen as a precocious 11-year-old with braces and pigtails who qualified in 2014 for the U.S. Women’s Open at Pinehurst, teed off at 8:45 a.m. in her second major. Now 14, Li earned her spot in the field this week by winning the AJGA Junior ANA Inspiration last weekend.
On its own, a junior in a women’s major isn’t big news. Juniors and amateurs have been a part of the ANA Inspiration for years. Alison Lee played as a junior in 2013, Angel Yin qualified in 2014, Hannah O’Sullivan played last year at age 17 and reigning U.S. Junior and U.S. Women’s Amateur champion Eun Jeong Seong not only played this year but held the lead early after holing a 6-iron on the 185-yard, par-3 No. 5 for an ace.
The youngest to play in what then was called the Kraft Nabisco Championship was Michelle Wie, who not only made an appearance on a March Thursday in 2003 as a 13-year-old, she played well enough to be in the final threesome on Sunday with Annika Sörenstam and the eventual winner, Patricia Meunier-Lebouc.
What made Li’s appearance, and the fact that she shot a respectable 1-under 71 on Thursday, so notable was the fact that few golf fans had seen her since her U.S. Women’s Open appearance, and the fact that she played with Wie, whose last and most impressive win came that same week in Pinehurst.
“Lucy reminded me a lot of Michelle playing in such big-stage events at such a young age,” Kay Cockerill, who followed the twosome for Golf Channel, told me after the round. “She’s certainly different from Michelle at that age in terms of the power, but they both had a maturity (inside the ropes) beyond their years.”
Outside the ropes, Li is just as impressive as Wie at that age while still being an awkward and bashful teen. After leaving the course on Thursday, she attacked some Algebra II homework.
“I’m reading this book called Team of Rivals,” Li said, referencing Doris Kearns Goodwin’s monumental bestseller, and a hefty book for a reader of any age. “It’s about Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet. … I love reading just books in general, and (I love) history. I’m also a big NBA fan. I’m kind of interested in politics, and I watch TV.”
She also loves bows and frills and braiding her hair, much like Wie did when she was that age and playing in LPGA events while studying advanced math, chemistry and two foreign languages.
“I feel like no one really called me cute back then,” Wie said after firing a 4-under 68 on Thursday. “I was walking behind (Li) on (No.) 1, and I’m like, ‘She’s really cute.’ No one really called me that when I was 13. ‘Damn, she tall.’ That’s all I got.”
Wie also was 6 feet tall at age 13, and is a solid 6-foot-1 now. Li might be 5-foot-2 in golf shoes.
“I think it was really nice for Michelle, because it had to have reminded her of when she was that age and of that refreshing throwback to how kids play,” Cockerill said. “Lucy doesn’t have any strange mannerisms, no quirky movements, and she plays quickly. I think that helped Michelle.”
Unsaid was the fact that Li seemed to have a great time on the golf course; seemed to play naturally and freely, swinging without inhibition or technical paralysis, much like Wie did when experts compared her swing to that of Ernie Els. For Michelle, those days are long gone. For Lucy, this week is a cautionary tale.
If Li has one leg-up on other juniors, it’s the fact that she doesn’t have a swing coach. She worked a little during the winter with Jim McLean but most of her tips have come from rounds in San Francisco with Johnny Miller and the pen-pal relationship she’s developed with Mickey Wright.
Wie didn’t have mentors like that.
“She’s super nice,” Li said of her playing partner. “We just had a lot of fun today.”
Hopefully it was also a day where each of them learned something valuable and lasting from the other.