Two years after Pinehurst, Fun is Still Li’s Objective July 19, 2016 | Paramus, N.J. By Lisa D. Mickey

An even-par 73 in Round 1 has Lucy Li well-positioned for match play in her second U.S. Girls' Junior. (USGA/Jeff Haynes)

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Ever since Lucy Li began competing in USGA championships, the media spotlight has focused on her as the youngest contestant to watch.

She was 10 when she became the youngest competitor to advance into match play in a USGA championship at the 2013 Women’s Amateur Public Links. That happened one month before she became the youngest competitor in the U.S. Women’s Amateur.

She was also the youngest qualifier in the history of the U.S. Women’s Open at age 11 years, 8 months and 19 days in 2014. Li was the center of attention in that national championship at Pinehurst No. 2, where the youngster wowed massive galleries with her star-spangled outfits and matching hair ribbons, as well as her mature golf shots on the demanding and often punitive course.

At this week’s U.S. Girls’ Junior Championship at The Ridgewood Country Club, Li, is one of three 13-year-old players in the field, sharing that distinction with fellow Californians Zoe Antoinette Campos of Valencia, who is 2 months younger than Kayla Sam of Anaheim Hills, followed by Li, of Redwood City.

Li is the only 13-year-old to advance into match play in four out of five USGA events – a feat she hopes to accomplish again this week at the U.S. Girls’ Junior.

And, while she describes herself as “old” – with her 14th birthday coming in October – Li believes she is on track to be regarded as more than just another youthful face in the field.

“I’ve achieved more than I thought I would achieve so far in golf and I’m more comfortable,” said Li, who qualified for the U.S. Women’s Amateur starting on Aug. 1 at Rolling Green Golf Club in Springfield, Pa. “And while I’m 13, this is actually my seventh USGA event. The U.S. Women’s Amateur will be my eighth USGA event.”

Li carded an even-par score of 73 on Monday to put herself in comfortable position to move into Wednesday’s match play.

When asked if she felt ready to move deeper into the match-play draw during this week’s championship, Li said she believes she is prepared.

“I think my game has improved a lot,” she said. “I just need to perform well.”

Li had plenty of support at her coming-out party at Pinehurst in the 2014 Women’s Open. Fans adored her and lined up for autographs. All the while, the diminutive junior held her own at the same venue where Michelle Wie made her own splash with her first major-championship victory.

The affable Redwood Shores, Calif., resident also charmed the media with her infectious laugh. Li answered questions each day with poise beyond her years and only scowled when family members took ice cream away or microphones were too insistent. After she missed the 36-hole cut, she walked inside the ropes for an up-close view of Wie’s victory.

It was clear that the overall experience of playing championship golf was as important as the numbers she logged on her scorecard.

“My expectations have not changed since I first came out and started playing,” she said. “The goal was to come out and have fun and to play as well as I can. It’s still the same thing.”

When asked how her experience at the 2014 U.S. Women’s Open impacted her game, Li called the week “incredible,” adding what only a teen might put at the top of her highlight list for the week.

“The people at Pinehurst were so nice, the golf course was really tough and the food was really good,” said Li with her trademark laughter. “That’s what I remember. Oh, and the greens were tough, and I met Webb Simpson.”

 When pressed on how that week helped her become a better player, Li paused and gave the question some thought.

"I think it helped a lot because I learned I could play under pressure with a lot of people watching me,” she said. “That was the most people I have ever played in front of, for sure.”

Li said she wasn’t intimidated by the crowds that pressed against the ropes to watch her play the challenging Pinehurst No. 2. In fact, she admitted that she didn’t really notice the massive galleries.

“It was really about me and the golf course,” she said. “I didn’t really see all of those people when I played, but when I watched it on TV later, I was like, ‘Wow! There were that many people there?’”

Li is taller and stronger than she was in 2014. When she’s at home, she enjoys making crafts – like the multi-colored rubber-band wallet she carries – and playing basketball.

She still relishes the time she beat her older brother Luke – who is 21 and working as an intern for an investment company in New York City – in two straight basketball free-throw contests.

“He was kind of annoyed by it,” said Li, with a big laugh. “But we both are big NBA fans. Even though I’m from San Francisco, I’m a [Cleveland] Cavaliers fan and I also like the [Golden State] Warriors.”

Li’s big brother plans to come watch her play this week. She has already enjoyed her fair share of ice cream and goodies, which she says is the most fun part of the Girls’ Junior Championship.

 “They pay a lot of attention to the fun stuff we get to do in this championship,” she said. “This year, they had ribbons to put in your hair and all these jars of candy and so much ice cream!”

Another highlight for her is the rolling layout of The Ridgewood Country Club course.

“I like this golf course because it reminds me of some courses I play back in San Francisco,” she said. “It’s tree-lined with narrow fairways, undulating greens and tough bunkers.”

Which for Li, sounds like a delicious recipe for a successful week once again at a USGA championship.

Lisa D. Mickey is a Florida-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.

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