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Friday, May 23, 2014

On Laura Davies and Lucy Li

There's something magical about a competitive sport in which a seasoned, experienced 50-year old professional athlete and an 11-year old amateur can meet on the playing field as equals.   That's the nature of golf, and that's the nature of the US Women's Open.

Established in 1946 by the Women's Professional Golf Association, the Open is the oldest and longest-running competition in women's golf.  The list of US Women's Open champions reads like a Who's Who in Women's Golf: Patty Berg (1946), Betty Jameson (1947), Babe Zaharias (1948), Betsy Rawls (1951), Louise Suggs (1952), Mickey Wright (1958), Annika Sorenstam (1995), Juli Inkster (1999).  To play in the Open is a singular honor and those who qualify automatically join a sisterhood bounded by athletic excellence and authoritative mental force. Those who have won the Open have also enjoyed an additional dose of extraordinary good luck, always a critical element in the calculus of a golf match.

Laura Davies, who won the Open in 1987, qualified at Rumson Country Club in Rumson, New Jersey sectional qualifiers to play in her 26th US Women's Open next month.  Simply put, Laura Davies is a legend.

Laura Davies, blasting out of a bunker on her way to
winning the 2004 Australian Open.  Photo: AP
A native of Coventry, England, after compiling an international record as an amateur, Davies turned pro in 1985.  She plays on both the LPGA and the Ladies European Tour (LET).  She's the first non-American to finish a season at the top of the LPGA money list.

She's won the LET Order of Merit seven times.  She's put 84 pro victories on her resume.  She's the only player, American or European to have been a member of the European Solheim Cup team every year since the inaugural event in 1990 until 2013, and she organizes the annual player/caddie/celebrity soccer match at the Evian Championship.  Davies is two victories away from qualifying for membership in the World Golf Hall of Fame.

How does Davies, a practical realist who's missed the cut in three of the four LPGA events she's entered this year, who's now playing her 29th year of professional golf, feel about her prospects for getting those last two wins?
"I know I’m closer to the end of my career than the beginning, but I feel I can win again. The way I hit the ball, I will still have my chances. I just love competing."
Lucy Li.  Photo Credit: Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images
But golf remains an equalizer of generations, and 11-year old Lucy Li, who made her international golf debut at the USGA-sponsored Drive, Chip & Putt contest that preceded the 2014 Masters Championship, is going to tee it up alongside Laura Davies in a few week at the US Women's Open.

How does Li feel about this opportunity?  At this point, we don't know.  Lucy's family, shielding her from the media, has issued a formal, appropriately humble statement:
"Lucy is very honored to have qualified for the 2014 US Women's Open, and to have the opportunity to compete in this most prestigious national championship."
Li's not the youngest golfer to play in the US Women's Open.  That honor goes to Beverly Klass, another child prodigy of the royal and ancient game, who played in the 1967 Open, before players had to qualify.  And Klass's story shines a fearless light on the dark side of the child prodigy's life, the raging, abusive power of parental ambition, the loss of childhood innocence, the deterioration and even destruction of the fabric of family life, the transformation of a son or daughter into a robotic money machine.

But Lucy Li is not Beverly Klass and we hope that Li's family will choose a different, healthier path for their schoolgirl phenom.  Lucy Li is enjoying a budding amateur golf career and may some day enjoy the stature of a Laura Davies.  In 2013 she qualified to compete in the US Women's Amateur Public Links Championship and she won the 2014 Drive, Chip & Putt contest for her age group.  Now Lucy Li has eclipsed Lexi Thompson's record -- Thompson qualified for the Open as a 12-year old 2007 -- and will step onto that stage that doesn't allow much privacy.  Thompson and other established LPGA Tour players are prepared to welcome her and, to the extent possible, shield her from the intrusive, probing public eye.

There's a bit of buzz about Lucy Li.  How will a schoolgirl handle the media blitz that surrounds the Open?  What does her achievement say about the state of women's golf in the United States?
It's all silliness and puts the focus on the wrong place, so far as I'm concerned.  The Open has historically been the event that brings together golfers, professional and amateur, in a premier event that showcases the best in athletics, and so it will be again in 2014.  Lucy Li's presence tells me that the sport is alive and prospering, that young people are drawn to golf, and that the sport, itself, remains the quintessential lifetime athletic experience.

But Lucy's presence also reminds me that children, however talented, however capable of adult performance -- in golf, in music, in chess -- remain children and deserve the protection of a loving family and a caring community as they travel that slippery, treacherous path from child prodigy to happy, fully functioning adult.  Whether or not Lucy Li will successfully navigate that difficult path is a story that can't yet be written.

Play on, Laura Davies and Lucy Li, and play with joy, for the love of the game!