Meet Lucy Li, the 11-year-old golf phenom teeing off at US Women's Open

Jeff Siner / Today
Lucy Li, at 11, is the youngest player ever to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Open.

She is the youngest player ever to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Open, but that distinction doesn’t phase 11-year-old golf phenom Lucy Li.

“I like crowds. They don't bother me. I play better the more people that come watch me,” the sixth-grader said at a recent news conference.

Don’t let the braces or the multiple colorful pigtails fool you. There’s a reason why Li has become the talk of the tournament, where she tees off Thursday in Pinehurst, North Carolina.

Streeter Lecka / Today
Li lines up a putt during a practice round prior to the start of the 69th U.S. Women's Open at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club in North Carolina.
Steve Gibbons / Today
Li at the 18th hole last August at the U.S. Women's Amateur Championship.

Li has spent nearly half her young life preparing for this moment. Since age 6, she has split her time between her home in California’s Bay Area and a golf school in Florida.

“I like golf because it's different from other sports,” she said. “Anybody can play it, if you're tall, short, fast or slow, that's what I like about it.”

Scott Halleran / Today
Li hits a shot during a practice round.

But Stacy Lewis, the top-ranked women's player in the world, has expressed concern about someone so young competing at such a high-level event.

“I just like to see kids learn how to win before they come get beat up out here,” she told USA Today. “When I found out she qualified, I said, 'Well, where does she go from here?' … If it was my kid, I wouldn't let her play in the U.S. Open qualifier at 11.”

John Bazemore / Today
Lucy Li smiles as she walks to the second tee during a practice round.

But Michelle Wie, who turned pro at 16 and described Li as “so darn cute,” is a big fan. She even offered the youngster some advice.

“Go out there, try to learn as much as you can,” she said. “Go up to any pro, we're not scary, we won't bite. Just ask us anything."

Follow writer Eun Kyung Kim on Google+ or on Twitter.