The ice-cream bar melted. Lucy Li did not.
By the time the 11-year-old was done talking to the press, all that was left of her pink Starburst sorbet bar was a wrapper and a stick. She might not have been the first precocious preteen to bring dessert to the podium – records are unclear – but she might have been the most entertaining.
Her plan for the rest of the day?
“Eat some more ice cream,” Li said.
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Does she usually sit down this much, cross-legged, while waiting to play?
“I usually sit down more than that,” Li said.
Why the star-spangled outfit, a short top and flowing skirt both with an American flag motif?
“Because it’s the U.S. Open,” Li said, then added: “I like red, white and blue, too.”
With an ice-cream bar in her hand, Li was every bit her 11 years, 8 months and 19 days Thursday. With a club in her hand, she was every bit the equal of her much older playing partners in the opening round of the Women’s Open, not to mention Pinehurst’s treacherous No. 2 course.
Jessica Wallace, 23, shot a 4-over-par 74. Catherine O’Donnell, 24 and a North Carolina graduate, shot an 8-over 78. Li shot an 8-over 78 under enormous pressure. Dozens in the field would have gladly swapped scores Thursday night.
Neither Wallace nor O’Donnell knew what to expect when the pairings came out, although both professed excitement at the possibilities.
“I know what a big deal Lucy is coming out here, so, hey, I’m totally fine coat-tailing off of people wanting to take a look at her,” Wallace said.
And if Li hadn’t bounced back from a double-bogey on 10, her opening hole, maybe things would have gone differently in front of galleries that swelled to several hundred fans by the end.
“Once we played the first couple of holes, I knew it was going to be a fun day,” O’Donnell said. “It would have been interesting to see if she got out there and she was really struggling out there. That may have been difficult to play with. It wasn’t like that at all. It was like playing with another pro.”
It was a serious group for the first few holes, but they started talking in earnest on the 13th hole and by the 17th tee, Wallace told a story that had Li smiling broadly for the first time. O’Donnell said she tried to talk about Harry Potter, but Li wasn’t quite old enough.
After Li’s first birdie, she acknowledged the cheers for the first time. She seemed to get a taste for it after that. Another birdie, on the par-5 fifth, provoked a big smile and wave. Those couldn’t make up for a triple-bogey and two doubles, all of which involved greenside bunkers. It was a good round with three bad holes.
Li didn’t hit it as far as her partners – she did outdrive both on the second hole – but hit greens with her woods, torquing her petite frame before unleashing her shoulders. O’Donnell had to ask her to move out of her line a few times, but Li never hinted at anything but wide-eyed enthusiasm.
“There were times when I felt more immature than she is,” Wallace said. “Just the way she handles herself on the golf course, she’s mature beyond her years. I thought she handled herself really well out there. Her first U.S. Open, she’s 11 years old. Who knows what people were expecting out of her this week?”
And then Li wandered into the interview area, ice-cream bar in hand, pigtails flopping, braces shining in the sun, and reminded everyone just how old she actually is.
“You have to like the golf course, man,” she said. Seemed like the feeling was mutual Thursday.