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Pigtailed prodigy Lucy Li, 11, misses Open cut, doesn’t miss the point

Akrit Jaswal is a physician who was admitted to medical school in India and performed his first surgery five years earlier … at age 7.

In 2011, abstract artist Aelita Andre from Australia had her first solo exhibition in New York and sold paintings of a surrealist style for more than $30,000 … at age 4.

Sarah Chang is a violinist who entered Julliard and two years later made her professional debut when performing Paganini’s Concerto No. 1 with the New York Philharmonic … at age 8.

Mozart, anyone?

Jackie Cooper?

Garry Kasparov?

Child prodigies are as much part of history as any significant political movement or artifacts taking up space in some museum.

Mathematics. Music. Acting. Physics. Medicine. Literature. Astronomy. Psychology. Computer science. All have produced those children who deliver a meaningful domain in a specific area to the level of an adult expert performer.

It has occurred often in sports, too.

Which means while there is something remarkable about Lucy Li, hers is hardly an original tale.

She isn’t the first athlete who accomplished momentous feats before venturing into those theatrical teenage years, not the first child to execute her chosen sport at a level never realized by most.

But every time such a youngster is introduced to the world — Tiger Woods at age 2 on the “Mike Douglas Show,” Michelle Wie at 10 qualifying for national golf tournaments, Wayne Gretzky at 10 having scored nearly 400 goals in just 85 games while playing hockey against players five years his elder — there arises this sense that so much early attention is a bad and damaging thing.

Sometimes, maybe.

But for a majority of examples, the world doesn’t end and the child doesn’t lose his or her mind and they’re better for the experience.

Well, except for Ted Kaczynski, who was a child prodigy in mathematics.

There is always one lunatic in the group.

Li is 11, from Silicon Valley and who became my favorite golfer this week.

Not for her performance. For the outfits and ice cream and attitude.

She is the youngest person in history to qualify for the U.S. Women’s Open and predictably struggled at Pinehurst No. 2 in North Carolina. Predictably struggled for someone so gifted. For most of us, her two-day score on such a difficult track would have been cause for massive celebration.

She finished with a total of 156, far north of the cut line. She shot consecutive 78s, ahead of names such as Kristy McPherson (10 career top 10s) and Stacey Keating (six professional wins) and in a group at 16 over that included Laura Davies (20 LPGA Tour victories, nearly $9 million in career earnings).

Laura.

Davies.

Who is 50.

I don’t stand on the same side of the green as Stacy Lewis, the world’s No. 1 player (who knew?) and of the opinion Li was too young to play in the Open.

Lewis said that if Li was her daughter, she wouldn’t have allowed the 11-year-old to play her qualifier. A tournament, by the way, Li won by seven shots.

Lewis does, in a roundabout way, mention the most important element to all of this: parenting. We live in a most ambitious society, often dominated by the hopes and dreams and obsessive nature of moms and dads and their fixation on shaping their children into stars of a chosen field.

Li’s father is a computer consultant; her mother works at Hewlett Packard; her aunt, who cares for Lucy when she is in Florida training with her coach, is an eye doctor. Li is home-schooled through a Stanford University program, and her brother attends Princeton.

Pretty accomplished stuff.

And, if a proper perspective is kept when it comes to golf, there’s nothing wrong with Li competing in a major event for which she qualified.

I can’t believe the same little girl with pigtails who bounded up and down the fairways at Pinehurst No. 2 on Thursday wearing a red, white and blue outfit dotted with silver stars is any worse for the experience.

The sixth-grader departed the 18th green and darted straight for some ice cream.

“I just need to get away from the big numbers,” Li told reporters between laughs and bites of a strawberry treat.

Did she expect to have more than two birdies in her first round?

“I didn’t really care,” she said.

Good for her. She shouldn’t have. By all accounts, she approached the moment as anyone would have hoped.

She had fun. Learned a lot. Showed the sort of outlook that countless parents who overly push their children to achieve should embrace. She never worried about a score. She followed a triple bogey by hitting a hybrid to within 8 feet of the hole. She hit a 3-wood into the bunker at 16, asked her caddie if it landed in sand, was told yes, shrugged her shoulders and bounded back down the fairway. She walked off greens and asked what she shot on a particular hole. Had no idea. Didn’t care. She was more excited about emails and texts from friends back home than any shot she played.

Then there was the world’s top-ranked player.

“When I found out she qualified, I said, ‘Well, where does she go from here?’” Lewis said. “You qualify for an Open at 11, what do you do next?”

My guess while watching how Li handled herself: For some chocolate and vanilla to go with the strawberry.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

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