WINTER HAVEN, FLORIDA | Lucy Li stands out in the crowd.
Thursday, the 17-year-old was dressed head to toe in a burgundy ensemble from Nike, her black hair twisted into a knot atop her head, fixed in place with a coordinating scrunchie which also matched her visor. Polished, poised and refined. Those were the words that came to mind watching Li practice among her fellow pros preparing for the Epson Tour’s season opener.
Temperatures soared into the upper 80s and the wind howled as players packed the practice putting green at the Country Club of Winter Haven. If there was a capacity limit for the number of people that could putt at once, it was certainly reached. Among them were the journeyman pros, many of whom returned with the hope this might be the year their dream is realized. And scattered about the green were a few LPGA Tour stars who are using the week to sharpen their game during the Tour’s unintended hiatus due to the coronavirus.
And there was Li, a star in her own right.
In 2014, she burst onto the golf scene at age 11 when she became the youngest player to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Open. Li stood out then, too. Donning a star-spangled red, white and blue ensemble with her hair in braided pigtails, Li stole the show, and hearts, as she ate an ice cream cone while taking questions from the media.
Since then, Li has been a fixture on the golf landscape. She enjoyed a decorated amateur career as a member of the United States team at the Junior Solheim Cup, Junior Ryder Cup and Curtis Cup. Li captured the ANA Junior Inspiration and became the only amateur to make the cut at the 2017 ANA Inspiration. She also won her age division at the inaugural Drive Chip and Putt held at Augusta National.
This week, Li is taking the next step in her career. In November, Li announced her intention to forego her amateur status. Friday, she makes it official as she makes her first start as a professional.
“It’s my first tournament in five months, so I’m still a little bit nervous,” Li told EpsonTour.com. “Obviously I’m kind of used to the stage, but I don’t think there’s ever a time that you can’t ever not be nervous.”
Following her T72 finish at Stage II of the LPGA Tour Qualifying Tournament, she earned membership to the Epson Tour. In 2020, Li plans to play a full schedule in hopes of finishing inside the top 10 on the Volvik Race for the Card money list and earning Membership to the LPGA Tour.
“This is a new experience for me playing on the tour with 20 events,” Li said. “I’m used to playing a few events a year on the junior circuit, so getting used to that and learning from the great players out here and getting that experience for the next step.”
For Li, that next step is the LPGA Tour, where she’ll try to compete a few times in 2020.
She intends to try to Monday Qualify for the Volvik Founders Cup in March in Phoenix. She’ll also try to qualify for the LPGA MEDIHEAL Championship, which is held in April near her hometown of Redwood Shores, California. There’s also a hope she’ll earn an exemption to the HUGEL-AIR PREMIA LA Open.
“I’m going to play as many as I can, but not burn myself out,” Li said about her schedule. “I usually don’t like to play more than a three-week stretch in a row, so I’ve got an outline of what I’m going to do.”
Just after Noon, Li finished putting. She handed her putter off to her caddie for the week, Jeff Decoen. The pair met just three days ago with the help of World Golf Hall of Famer Annika Sorenstam. Li already had three practice rounds under her belt but planned to take another loop around Winter Haven with Decoen on Thursday afternoon.
Li begins the next stage of her golf career on Friday morning when she hits her first tee shot as a professional at 8:39 a.m. Eastern.
And there will no doubt be a crowd.