Billy Payne wore a smile as wide as the Augusta National fairways as he watched eight kids file out of the room with their trophies from the inaugural Drive, Chip and Putt Championship on the Sunday before the Masters.
”We’re going to be hearing from some of these kids again,” he said.
Yes, but six weeks later?
An 11-year-old girl who won her age group in the youth competition before the Masters has played her way into the U.S. Women’s Open next month at Pinehurst No. 2.
Lucy Li, a sixth grader with braces and a sharp short game, made history Monday at Half Moon Bay with rounds of 74-68 to become the youngest player to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Open. Not only did she earn a spot at the biggest event in women’s golf, she won the 36-hole qualifier by seven shots.
It’s another example that golf has no age limits.
The record for youngest qualifier had belonged to Lexi Thompson, who was 12 when she made it to the 2007 Women’s Open at Pine Needles. It’s only fitting that when Li signed up for the Drive, Chip and Putt, she listed Thompson as among her favorite players.
Li, from the suburbs south of San Francisco, still won’t be the youngest player. Beverly Klass was 10 when she played in 1967, but that was when the U.S. Women’s Open didn’t have qualifying.
Judy Rankin was a 14-year-old prodigy from Missouri when she entered the 1959 U.S. Women’s Open at Churchill Valley Country Club in Pittsburgh.
”When I went to register, they asked me if I was registering for my mother,” Rankin said Tuesday. ”I weighed 80 pounds. I remember the first tee was way up high. I was shaking. I was so scared, so nervous. I thought I could fall off. I didn’t even make the cut. I was probably ill-prepared to be playing. But the next year, I was low amateur.”
Teenagers in the U.S. Women’s Open are nothing new.
Morgan Pressel, who went on to become the youngest major champion in LPGA Tour history at 18, qualified for the U.S. Women’s Open in 2001 when she 12. Michelle Wie was 12 when she qualified for her first LPGA Tour event, and she was in the final group at a major when she was 13.
Lydia Ko was 15 when she won the Canadian Women’s Open two years ago, making her the youngest winner in LPGA history. Now she’s in range of becoming No. 1 in the world.
In men’s golf, Matteo Manassero won twice on the European Tour before he had his driver’s license. Ryo Ishikawa won his first professional tournament when he was 15. Jordan Spieth nearly won the Masters last month at age 20. And who can forget Guan Tianlang, the 14-year-old from China who made the cut at the Masters last year?
Even so, two numbers are enough to get anyone’s attention – ”11” and ”sixth grade.”
”This is ridiculous,” Dottie Pepper said Tuesday, more amazed than concerned. Earlier in the day, Pepper was on Twitter and tried to get her head around an 11-year-old teeing it up at Pinehurst No. 2 when she noted that Li’s date of birth was ”THIS CENTURY. Whoa!”
Rankin and Pepper both attributed the increasing achievements by teens – pre-teens in Li’s case – to modern equipment and coaching.
Li began playing when she was 7 by whacking a few golf balls on the range while waiting for her brother and cousin to finish a golf tournament. She now works with Jim McLean. And this is not the first time Li has written herself into USGA history. She set a record last year in the U.S. Women’s Amateur as the youngest qualifier at age 10. She also was the youngest in the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links to reach match play, losing in the first round to a college player.
”For people with talent, regardless of age, today’s equipment is making the game a lot easier to learn,” Rankin said. ”For talented people, they are learning the game quicker and easier. That has a big bearing on it.”
Rankin also points to the very best in golf being on television so often, and the fact that kids copy what they see.
”No one in the world is better at mimicking than children,” she said. ”I can go way back to a friend of mine from U.S. Amateur days, Helen Sigel Wilson. She always said the way to teach a kid how to play good golf is only let them see great players. They can figure it out.”