Michelle Liu’s historic arrival turning heads at CP Women’s Open

Twelve year-old Michelle Liu hits an approach shot on the ninth hole during a practice round ahead of the CP Women's Open. (Nathan Denette/CP)

AURORA, Ont. — Michelle Liu could’ve scored free tickets to the CP Women’s Open this week, because she’s 12, and kids 12-and-under don’t have to pay to watch the action live. Sweet, right?

But Liu got in another way: The kid is in the field. She’s part of the action.

If you haven’t heard by now, the shock and awe may soon be registering: One of the 15 Canadians teeing it up this week at our national open is a couple weeks shy of starting Grade 8. At 12 years old, Liu is the youngest-ever competitor in Canadian Open history, crushing the record set by the defending champion here, fellow Canadian Brooke Henderson, who was 14 and an ancient teenager by comparison when she held that young standard.

“It’s exciting and I’m also nervous,” Liu says with a laugh. “It really makes me think: If I continue playing golf at this level, how far can I get? But yeah, this is definitely something new for me.”

Liu is easy to pick out among this field at Magna Golf Club, and not only because she wore a bright orange shirt on the driving range on Wednesday. She’s five feet tall, slight as can be, wears braces on her teeth and her white socks are pulled up nearly to mid-calf level unlike the usual ankle socks you’ll find around these parts.

Still, not everyone in this tournament is aware of Liu just yet.

“Wow, she’s playing?” says Suzann Pettersen’s caddy, James Longman, eyebrows way up. Pettersen, a 12-time winner on Tour, was crushing balls nearby while Liu was working on her short game. “She’s 12 years old?” Longman asked, just to make sure he hadn’t misheard. “Well,” he said, “she earned her right to be here.”

Liu did, indeed. She got an exemption thanks to finishing as low Canadian in the Canadian Women’s Amateur in Red Deer, Alta., three weeks ago, in 12th place. She counts that among one of her “larger accomplishments,” but the top two came in 2017, when she won the U.S. Kids’ Junior World Championships and the IMG Academy Junior World Championships. She was 10. (She had to double-check that with her mom, and asked in Mandarin, which Liu also speaks at home).

Those two wins stand out among the more than 100 Liu has amassed since she started playing competitively, around age seven, after taking up the game a year earlier. And you can see why the kid wins when you watch her crush it off the tee: Liu uses seemingly every ounce of herself, like she’s going to explode out of her shoes. Her torque is incredible, and her swing has players talking.

Liu says her driver is “definitely a strength,” and she’s good to hit most fairways. Her putting is also solid, but her chipping is a work in progress, though it’s “getting better.”

“The rough here is playing really long so I’d say the rough is something I’m going to want to keep out of,” she says. Liu spent nearly an hour working on her short game on Wednesday.

She has played a couple of rounds at Magna Golf Club this week, which she calls “very beautiful” and “very interesting, too.” The course plays long, and though Liu’s driver is dependable, because she’s still a kid and playing against grown women this week, her 230-yard average off the tee measures some 50 yards less than the big hitters on the LPGA Tour, Henderson included. “I can still reach the par 4 greens in two,” she points out.

While this week is far from ordinary, in a couple of weeks from now, Liu will be back in more familiar territory at Crofton House, an all-girls’ private school in Vancouver. Her best subjects are math and English. Asked if she’s a good student, Liu laughs and says, “Aaah… yes?” So, definitely.

And while she’s making history at Magna Golf Club with some of her final days of summer holiday, her friends are doing what many kids do when they’re 12, she says: “Most of them are at summer camps.”

Liu wasn’t planning to be in a summer camp herself this week, but had planned a trip to China to visit her grandparents. Instead, they’re coming to see her. “I can’t wait,” she says. Liu hasn’t seen them in nearly two years.

That’s among a few exciting moments Liu has already had this week, including taking a picture with Henderson, getting advice from pro Christina Kim (watch the clouds to see prevailing winds), and the moment that really blew her mind: Meeting Lydia Ko, a three-time winner here, who told Liu, “I’ve heard about you.”

“I don’t even remember what I said back,” Liu says, laughing. “I was so surprised. But yeah, she knew about me. That definitely meant a lot to me.”

This week, Liu is hoping to make the cut, but she knows “it’s definitely going to be pretty hard,” considering 96 of the top 100 players in the world are in the field. The goal is to play well and to enjoy herself.

Liu’s focus is not solely on golf, either. She also plays volleyball, and she started a foundation with a few school friends called Hope for Girls, to help disadvantaged youth in other parts of the world. Now 22 members strong, the kids raise money through bake sales and sell arts and crafts and used goods. “We pay for things like school supplies, especially things like textbooks, which can get pretty expensive,” Liu explains. “Currently, we’re focusing on 12 girls who are in the northern part of the Guangzhou province, in China. We’re hoping to focus on different areas in the future, because there are lots of other places that need this sort of help.

“This was really just an idea, especially because we’re really privileged to live in a place like Vancouver, where there’s such a great public schooling system.”

It’s easy to forget that Liu is just 12 when you hear her talk about her foundation. Get her going about signing autographs — “I feel like I’m getting pretty famous,” she points out — and it’s a nice reminder that she’s still 12 and soaking in the experience.

Liu tees off in Round 1 on Thursday at 1:03 p.m. ET., alongside a pair of Americans in Austin Ernst, who’s 27, and Jennifer Kupcho, who’s 22.

Before this week, Liu never played in front of a crowd before. “Crowd?” she asks with a laugh. “I’d say the most people I’ve played in front of was, I don’t know, like, five?”

There were at least 15 people watching her on the driving range on Wednesday.

“Well,” she says, “this week will be different.”

It sure will be. And no matter the outcome, Liu will have plenty of good stories to share with her friends when she’s back at school in September.

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