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Lucy Li hits from a sand trap on the 10th hole during the first round of the U.S. Women's Open golf tournament in Pinehurst, N.C., Thursday, June 19, 2014. (Chuck Burton/AP Photo)
Lucy Li hits from a sand trap on the 10th hole during the first round of the U.S. Women's Open golf tournament in Pinehurst, N.C., Thursday, June 19, 2014. (Chuck Burton/AP Photo)

It’s not hard to love 11-year-old golf prodigy Lucy Li Add to ...

She likes Disney movies and colourful preteen clothes, but Lucy Li is hardly your typical sixth-grader. The 11-year-old golfer from Redwood Shores, Calif., has made international headlines and had LPGA superstar Michelle Wie tweeting “WOAH! Amazing.” So great was the avalanche of media requests that her family released a statement declining all interviews and asking for the child’s privacy.

The fuss over little Lucy – she’s all of 5-foot-2 – followed her remarkable achievement of becoming the youngest woman ever to qualify for one of the premier tournaments in women’s golf. She is one of the marquee stories at this year's U.S. Women’s Open in North Carolina, where she posted a respectable  8 over 78 opening round Thursday against the best female golfers in the world.

So who is Lucy Li, and how did she get here?

Her rapid ascent in the sport began with an extraordinary commitment when she was 7. Li’s parents took their daughter to Miami to visit one of America’s best golf instructors, and the family vowed to move their daughter from California to Florida during winters each year if he would take her on as a student.

Jim McLean, who has taught more than 100 PGA Tour, LPGA and Senior PGA Tour players, at first didn’t want to work with a kid that young. But her family was passionate about their plan. Her father, Jack Li, a computer consultant, and mother, Amy Zeng Li, who works at Hewlett Packard, would remain at home in Silicon Valley while Li’s aunt, Tao Zeng, would care for her while in Florida. How could he say no?

“Her parents wanted her to do something well, and she had tried music, gymnastics, Ping Pong [her mom was a high-level table tennis player in China], but nothing she really loved until she found golf,” said McLean by phone from Trump National Doral in Miami, where one of his nine golf schools operates. “So she came here about four, five months of each year, and everyone here saw a tremendous commitment from this girl. We became her family away from home and she became a sort of little local superstar.”

She had come to enjoy the sport watching her dad and brother, who is now playing at Princeton. McLean kept his lessons informative but fun, and Li made quick progress. Together, they developed her swing by age eight and spent lots of time on the course working on enjoyable scoring shots – hooking and slicing the ball, hitting it high and low, learning to curve it.

McLean was no stranger to developing youngsters, albeit not quite so young as Li. He began working with former World No. 1 LPGA player Cristie Kerr when she was 13. He developed Lexi Thompson from the age of 8, the now-19-year-old rising star teeing off in her first U.S Open at 12.

McLean posted a jaw-dropping video on YouTube where Li, at 8, moves rapid-fire through a line of 20 golf balls on tees at a driving range. She swings gracefully through each one, all 20 sailing off with the same sweet, resounding ping. She then turns toward the camera and flashes a youthful smile before capering off sheepishly.

“That was a stunning performance for an eight-year-old, to do that with a driver,” McLean said. “I did it as a drill to help her create a continuous swing. I’ve tried it with a lot of kids – they’ll hit a few then miss a couple and stop – it’s too hard for them. But Lucy could do it with a driver, and I said, ‘I’ve got to tape that.’”

Through McLean, she met PGA stars Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Justin Rose and Keegan Bradley and his LPGA players such as Thompson. Li has viewed a pro golfer’s life first-hand.

Still, she hardly dresses like the sponsor-clothed women of the LPGA. She’s home-schooled with her aunt and studies online. McLean calls her a prolific reader and dedicated student.

While Li shows devotion to the game beyond her years, McLean says she has had child-like moments too – like when she complained that bouncing the ball off the face of her club to hone her hand-eye co-ordination was just too hard and she didn’t want to do it. She would eventually persevere and master it.

When she began competing in tournaments, the only one accompanying her was her aunt, an eye doctor who knew little of golf beyond what she learned from McLean’s books. So Li did her own on-course strategizing.

“Last year at the U.S Amateur, there was a lot of attention on her as the youngest there, and she called me after she shot an 82 in the first round and took an eight on the first hole. She said ‘the course is too long, it’s too hard,’” McLean recalled. “I said, ‘If you played great tomorrow, what do you think you could shoot?’ and she said, ‘Well, maybe I could shoot 76.’ She called me the next day to say she shot 71.”

At 10, she was the youngest player ever to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship and to reach match play at the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links. Then she won her age group at the inaugural Drive, Chip and Putt Championship at Augusta National.

Wie watched Li play at Augusta on TV, and was impressed. Wie herself had famously played in pro events very young, and turned pro before her 16th birthday in 2005, which was accompanied by unprecedented publicity and endorsements.

“I’m really excited for her – I know how it feels,” Wie told the Golf Channel this week. “It’s probably too big for her to understand – I didn’t understand it back then, what kind of impact I was making. I think she’s going to have a blast at the U.S Open, and I can’t wait to meet her.”

Golf Canada’s women’s amateur coach Tristan Mullally, who was with 15-year-old Brooke Henderson when she made her U.S Open debut last year, expects LPGA players to welcome Li warmly. But he warns of how emotionally draining the event can be for a youngster, from autographs to swarms of media.

“She should have a lot of fun and soak up the experience, and once she gets a taste of an event like that, she’ll want to do it every year,” Mullally said. “But just because she’s qualified for the U.S. Open, that doesn’t mean she should be trying to play in the LPGA right now. She should play a mix of junior and pro events. That’s a mistake Michelle Wie made, going up against the best players all the time and she wasn’t as good as them. That can be very discouraging at that age.”

Li convincingly won a U.S. Open qualifier at Half Moon Bay in San Francisco. Her two-round total 142 on the par 72 course was seven strokes better than the 15-year-old runner-up.

Li drives the ball an average of 225 yards, McLean says, and the golf world eagerly awaits her performance at prestigious Pinehurst in North Carolina from June 19 to 22.

“I bet she’ll wear something like a Mickey Mouse skirt, and she’ll have a flower in her hair,” McLean said. “I hope she keeps doing that. She’s really smart, but she’s still a child. I don’t know how long you keep child-like innocence, but she definitely has it right now, and she really enjoys the game.”

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