Pinehurst: Hannah Pietila's father was walking the fairways on Monday with his daughter during her first practice round at Pinehurst No. 2. He was supposed to be marking off yardage in anticipation of his caddying duties for the 69th U.S. Women's Open, which will get underway Thursday.
But his mind kept wandering to the preteen girl in the ruffled skirt and pigtails playing alongside his 18-year-old daughter.
For Aaron Pietila, observing 11-year-old Lucy Li unleashed a flood of memories of his daughter when she was Li's age. Nodding in Li's direction, he said: "It's pretty neat to watch her. She hits it almost like she doesn't care where it goes."
Eleven-year old amateur Lucy Li of the United States waits on a tee box during a practice round
Li, the youngest player ever to qualify for the tournament, is a home-schooled sixth-grader who divides her time between Redwood Shores, California, outside San Francisco, and Miami. She took up the sport at age 7 because her older brother, now at Princeton, was playing on his high school team. From the beginning, the game came easily to her.
Her parents, Warren and Amy, accompanied her to Florida to meet the golf instructor Jim McLean, whose students have included Lexi Thompson, the reigning Kraft Nabisco champion, and Cristie Kerr, a two-time major winner. While McLean initially was reluctant to work with someone so young, Li won him over with her skill and enthusiasm.
During the winter, Li works with McLean in Florida and lives with her aunt. Last year, as a 10-year old, she became the youngest qualifier for the U.S. Women's Amateur Championship and the youngest to advance to match play at the U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links. In April, she won her age division at the Drive, Chip and Putt Championship held at Augusta National ahead of the Masters.
She punched her ticket here by posting rounds of 74 and 68 in a May sectional qualifier in Half Moon Bay, California, the site of an LPGA event in 2008. She was the medalist, finishing seven strokes ahead of the runner-up, the 16-year-old amateur Kathleen Scavo.
Li said it was her idea to enter the qualifier. "I didn't care if I qualified or not," she said, adding, "I just wanted to go for the experience."
The weird and wonderful part of getting a glimpse of the possible future of women's golf is how it transports people back in time. Michelle Wie, who made the cut in her first U.S. Women's Open in 2003, at age 13, said she met Li on Sunday and was struck by her off-the-charts cute quotient.
"The first thought that came into my mind was, 'Oh, I wish I looked that cute when I was 11,'" Wie said, adding, "It's definitely a walk back to memory lane."
It is also a stroll back in time for Thompson, who was 12 in 2007 when she became the youngest to qualify for the tournament. She carded an 82 in the second round at Pine Needles, a few miles down the road from Pinehurst No. 2, and missed the cut.
"My experience at age 12 helped me so much," Thompson said, adding, "If this is what she wants to do for her life, she will learn off the other players and see what she needs to improve on."
Thompson learned she had to grow and gain length off the tee. And she did. Now a statuesque 6 feet, Thompson, the winner of the first major of the year, leads the LPGA Tour in driving distance at 275.35 yards.
"I told my parents after that week, it was like, 'I know I can compete out there, just give me a few more years,'" Thompson said.
In her practice rounds, Li has consistently been 50 yards shorter off the tee than the pros. "It goes farther in tournaments when there's adrenaline," she said.
Her caddie, Bryan Bush, a former club pro who lives here, said he would not be surprised if she made the cut. "Oh, no," he said. "We will be here Saturday."
Bush sat down with Li for 90 minutes this month and said, "I was blown away with her knowledge of the game at age 11, because I sure didn't have it."
Li had read up on the golf course architect, Donald Ross. She told Bush she knows the Pinehurst No. 2 greens were designed to repel golf balls rather than receive them. Not that she's worried. "Her short game is so ridiculous, it's fun to watch," Bush said.
Sometimes, Bush said, he just has to laugh. "You're watching an 11-year-old hit a 5-wood as well as I can hit a pitching wedge," he said, adding: "I'm in complete awe all the time. The best part is she's having fun."
Li giggled throughout her 20-minute news conference and charmed her audience with her answers, but not everyone is thrilled she is here. Stacy Lewis, ranked No. 1 in the world, said, "If it was my kid, I wouldn't let her play in the U.S. Open qualifier at 11."
Lewis, who finished college before turning pro, added, "When I found out she qualified, I said, 'Well, where does she go from here? What do you do next?'"
Who knows? Certainly not Li, who said, "The game's going to take me wherever it's going to take me, so I really don't care that much."
© 2014 New York Times News Service