PINEHURST, N.C. – Lucy Li was holding a teddy bear as she strolled through the merchandise tent Sunday during the U.S. Open, just another kid gleefully bouncing from aisle to aisle in golf's candy store.
On Thursday she'll be holding golf clubs in her hands and won't be just another kid in the crowd.
Li, the youngest player ever to qualify for the U.S. Women's Open, is playing Pinehurst No. 2 against the best female players in the world. At age 11.
With three pigtails sprouting from her tiny head, the 5-foot-1 Li was the biggest attraction Tuesday during practice rounds for the U.S. Women's Open. The sixth grader with a mouthful of braces, who is too young to play in an American Junior Golf Association tournament where you must be 12, even had as much fun during a 20-minute session in the interview room as she did playing the back nine of the course in a practice round with three-time LPGA tour winner Beatriz Recari.
"Not really," she laughed when asked if she was nervous about this 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 can learn a lot from these great players."
Being the youngest this and the youngest that is becoming old hat for Li, who is home-schooled through an online Stanford University program and likes math, science and history and loves to read, including all the works of Rick Riordon and books on Sherlock Holmes. Oh, and she loves arcades and going to Dave & Buster's Restaurant, too.
She loves to smile and loves to laugh, her coach, Jim McLean said, but has a work ethic "that is off the charts." She's just really good at golf and in 2013 was the youngest qualifier in U.S Women's Amateur history and the youngest player ever to reach match play at the Women's Amateur Public Links.
"I like golf because it's different from other sports. Anybody can play it, if you're tall, short, fast or slow, that's what I like about it," said Li, who made history May 19 when she shot 74-68 on the Old Course at Half Moon Bay to win a sectional qualifier by seven shots in California. Lexi Thompson (12 years, 4 months, 18 days) previously held the record for youngest to qualify for the event, doing so in 2007. "I have tried dancing, I really like dancing. I do table tennis, swimming, I love diving, badminton."
Li, who lives in Redwood Shores, Calif., won her age group in the first annual Drive, Chip and Putt Championship held in April ahead of the Masters.
"It's awesome, right? I mean Pinehurst and Augusta National in like two months," Li said. "I mean that's just amazing. It's mind- blowing for me. I went to look at Amen Corner and it was so beautiful."
She can hit her driver 230 yards – "It goes farther in tournaments when there's adrenaline," she said – and hits a 5-iron 170. She said throwing clubs is strictly off limits – "The worst I've done is hit myself in the head," she said. And she has never been intimidated on a course – "I just don't care that much."
But is she too young to be on such a grand stage?
World No. 1 Stacy Lewis has some concerns.
"I'm not a big fan of it. She qualified, so we can't say anything about that," Lewis said. "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."
McLean is a bit concerned, too.
"I know she's intelligent and learns so quickly. I talked with her on Sunday and she is having a phenomenal time," he said. "She has that great child personality. But she gets so focused and so determined and she gets so quiet, so that could hurt her. But I think she'll love being there."
Dottie Pepper, an ESPN analyst who won two majors on the LPGA tour, said there should be no concern if the right approach is taken.
"Not all 11-year-olds are the same. If the definition of success for her this week is not based on score, then I don't think it's too young," Pepper said. "If it's based on score, then it is too young. The important thing for her is to treat the whole experience as a kid on the golf course. Forget expectations."
Major winner and two-time LPGA tour winner Morgan Pressel is of the same mind. She was 12 when she qualified for the 2001 U.S. Women's Open played just up the road at Pine Needles. That year she was a 5-foot-2 whirlwind who led a parade of reporters around, including NBC host Bryant Gumbel, and loved the ice cream bars in the media center and the Krispy Kreme donuts in the locker room. She also shot respectable rounds of 77 but missed the cut.
"I think I was silly in thinking I wanted to win. It was cool to be in the same locker room with all the women I looked up to," Pressel said. "It was a pretty amazing experience for me. It showed me what I wanted to do with my life.
"(Li) qualified. She won by seven. She obviously has some game. She's here for the experience. Now, if she wanted to play on the LPGA tour full time, that would be a concern."
Thompson had a great time when she played the 2007 Open at Pine Needles.
"I practiced my autograph on the drive up there to Pine Needles and I was overwhelmed. I got to see all the players I watch on TV and I was so excited to be there," she said. "If this is what (Li) wants to do for her life, she will learn off the other players and see what she needs to improve on.
"My experience at age 12 helped me out so much. I don't think it's a matter of age, I think it's a matter of talent and what you bring to the table."
Among Li's highlights so far have been meeting Webb Simpson, Annika Sorenstam, Karrie Webb and Anna Nordqvist. On Sunday she met Michelle Wie, who was criticized for not playing in AGJA events or high school golf. At 13 she began playing against the men on the PGA Tour and turned pro at 16. Her teen years were rough, with Wie at times questioning her love for the game. But Wie earned a degree from Stanford and her love for the game has returned this year, as she won her third tour title.
"She looks so young and so darn cute, I was like, I don't think I looked that cute when I was 11," Wie said. "But she just looks so excited, so wide-eyed. I don't think she's too young to be here. It's not like she's joining the tour full time. Everyone has their different paths. … I would tell her just to have fun. Go out there, try to learn as much as you can, go up to any pro, we're not scary, we won't bite. Just ask us anything."
Li intends to do just that. For now, she just wants to play golf – even if thousands of people will be watching the biggest tournament the women play.
"I like crowds, they don't bother me," she said. "I play better the more people that come watch me. So, yeah. I'm really excited though."