I know, I know: That's why they call it an "Open." Once a year, anyone who can make it through the qualifying rounds can go for the trophy in a major golf event, which is a terrific athletic ideal in a sports landscape that's increasingly burdened with commerciality. As long as there's an Open, the ancient and noble sport can remind us that the word amateur doesn't have to carry its modern connotation of lesser.
And, yes, I know that with five million fewer golfers than there were a decade ago, and with Tiger's luster long lost, Lucy Li, who shot a pair of 78s in this week's U.S. Women's Open, is exactly what the game needs: a charming young golfer of extraordinary talent. But somewhere, in a sanitarium in a parallel universe, Holden Caulfield is not happy.
Lucy Li has game, and she hits an inordinate number of fairways (averaging 235 yards, thank you) and can lay an approach shot up there as if hand-delivered with a personal note. And she plays quickly and aggressively and seldom leaves a putt short, and …
Lucy Li is 11 years old.
She is a larval human being, wading into a white-hot pool.
We are on a precarious perch here.
For a little perspective, if Li were in a public school, instead of being home schooled by Stanford, she'd be in sixth grade. Sixth grade is most often considered the last grade in "elementary" school, because, as a human being, kids her age have elementary skills -- not just at reading, but at reading the adult world's cues. At some point, wise heads realized all sorts of things are still undeveloped in that young brain -- from the judgment chip to the cause-and-effect chip -- and put sixth grade in the "elementary" category.
Stanford sounds impressive, but Stanford is for post-adolescents roaming a stunningly beautiful campus, mixing with people they've never met and tossing about ideas they've never explored. Online? Walled off from the real world? At the sixth-grade level? Maybe she'll memorize some dates, kick a little calculus. Learning how to get along with people who aren't like you? Running up against the speed bumps your peers are facing and overcoming them? Can you do that online?
When the golf is all over, can you go back in time and revisit the childhood you never had?
* * *
Of course she entrances us. Eleven-year-old girls will do that. When an anchorwoman says, "She delights me," that tells us pretty clearly that observers are concerned with their own delight, not the young golfer's.
Of course she appeals to us, her jaded audience. Eleven-year-old girls are still innocent. They remind us of how nice it used to be, back when we were oblivious to the cliff just over the horizon.
So from today on in, as she plays her game and delights in it, it's on us to make sure that no one robs her of that innocence. Which is why I bring up Holden Caulfield. In Catcher in the Rye, J.D. Salinger's protagonist considers the poem "Comin' Thro' the Rye," by Robert Burns, and decides his role in life is to keep kids from falling off a cliff as they frolic through a nearby field of rye grass, oblivious to the danger. This is Holden's metaphor for doing everything he can to save his sister Phoebe from an adult world that's full of "phonies," which is Holden's favorite word.
We shouldn't conflate Lucy Li's precocious physical prowess with psychological maturity, nor should we mistake her ability to drive like a woman twice her age for the ability to handle media pressure like a woman twice her age. We should at least ask ourselves, at some point: "Who is best served by this entertainment equation? The little girl, or the big world, looking for a storyline?"
Is our smiley-faced fascination with her storyline totally honest, or is there an element of Holden's phoniness when we seize upon it? Cbssports.com's headline read, "An 11-year-old is owning the U.S. Women's Open," while coverage in The New York Times and on espn.com virtually ignored the leader, Stacy Lewis, the No. 1 women's golfer in the world.
I think it's possible that we're using Lucy Li in a way that might not benefit her down the road. Yes, there are precedents. Lexi Thompson and Morgan Pressel debuted in the Open at the age of 12, and both won majors before turning 20. But isn't there a Ty Tryon or Aree Song for every Thompson and Pressel? Michelle Wie is hitting her stride, thankfully. Jennifer Capriati, Lindsay Lohan and Macaulay Culkin have not. One question I'd like to ask each of them: Were you allowed to have a childhood?
"It wasn't like playing with an 11-year-old kid," one of Li's partners said after Thursday's first round. "It was like playing with a professional golfer."
That doesn't sound good. Remember sixth grade? I do. I was a sixth grader then, and now I'm an adult. It took me the usual amount of years, and I think it was supposed to.
* * *
To be clear, I'm not saying that there's anything wrong with an 11-year-old possessed of potential greatness getting a big stage for a couple of days. I'm not questioning the LPGA's willingness to market her, or the networks' eagerness to do so. I'm not even asking for restraint. Talk her up when she she's outdriving her competitors. She deserves it.
I'm just prodding everyone currently surrounding this larval human being, from parents to teachers to coaches to media, to be her Holden Caulfield for the next several years. To consider whether she should be out in that rye, not far from the cliff, and that perhaps she should go back to safer, amateur fields, where she can progress as a human -- not a storyline -- a little more naturally.
Another question: In grabbing her life for ourselves, can we make sure we're not leeching some of her purity away? She may seem cool and composed right now, but don't think for a second that isn't because, 11 years out of a womb, she isn't relying on us to protect her. That's why she's free to be Li.
Sixth-grade children are delightfully free to be innocent because they know we have their backs. They have the security of knowing that we'll keep them from harm, even if they themselves cannot. You don't have to direct a sixth-grade girl as the lead in a high school musical and see her goofing around with her best friend 10 seconds before she's supposed to take the stage (as I have) to realize that. You don't have to see sixth graders starting a food fight at your lunch table to know that they're living in a lyrical land, because they know we're looking out for them. If we -- the folks at the head of the lunch table -- can't save the children, then what's the point of hoping for a better future?
I can hear you protesting: "Lighten up. It's one kid, it's one tournament." But on the second day, after Lucy Li parred out to finish her first two days in the spotlight at 16 over, emphatically missing the cut, did you see the expression on her once bubbly, moony face? She was not smiling. She was a tad miffed. She wore the expression of someone who is very hard on herself, which is just fine for an adult who has just messed up. How about the expression she wore after that final putt? Downslant of mouth, trying to hide the anger and frustration. That look should never cross the face of an elementary schooler, whose future promises many cool things, as long as she's not deprived of them.
It is out of her hands now. She's way too young, as any child psychologist would tell you, to make rational decisions about her own future. That leaves us.
* * *
Golf is a special sport -- an ancient sport, a wise sport -- and with that come special responsibilities, unlike the role of baseball, football or basketball. This is not high entertainment, nor (as we refer to age) is it Olympic gymnastics, where the little girls and their teams and their coaches and managers and agents are locked into a paradigm that makes you want to weep every four years.
Golf belongs to a different time and place. It's an adult of a sport, but in letting 11-year-old girls into the Open, it isn't acting like one. In allowing even one 11-year-old girl into its big-money game, Big Golf is like a little kid grabbing for whatever it wants -- headlines and media exposure -- without thinking about the consequences.
The rules, though, will remain unchallenged: No matter your age, if you're good, you can play. So once we've devoured and chewed up and spit out Lucy Li's storyline -- once the home-schooled kid has gone home, probably trying not to be devastated -- we'd better make sure that we protect her the rest of the way. Because no matter how far and accurately she launches those tee shots, I have a feeling she's gonna need it.