At the Half Moon Bay Golf Links, where the latest wunderkind in women's golf sometimes practices, general manager Bill Troyanoski recalled with some amusement the first time he ever heard of Lucy Li.

It started with a pair of complaints, one last year and another earlier this year, about a "young lady" taking forever between shots. Upon the second complaint, Troyanoski headed out to the course to see for himself.

What he saw was indeed slow. And also remarkable.

"I don't know that I've seen anybody practice more intensely and passionately at any level -- I mean any level -- than Lucy," Troyanoski said.

Eleven-year old amateur Lucy Li of the United States hits a shot during a practice round prior to the start of the 69th U.S. Women’s Open at
Eleven-year old amateur Lucy Li of the United States hits a shot during a practice round prior to the start of the 69th U.S. Women's Open at Pinehurst Resort & Country Club, Course No. 2, on June 17, 2014, in Pinehurst, North Carolina. (Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

While she takes her time on the course, Lucy is getting places faster than anyone in the history of women's golf. The kid from Redwood Shores earned her way to this week's U.S. Women's Open at age 11, making her the youngest qualifier ever.

"It's pretty amazing, but I try not to think about it," Lucy said Tuesday during a press conference in Pinehurst, N.C, where the tournament begins Thursday. "I'm just another player, just trying to do the best I can."

A home-schooled sixth-grader, Lucy advanced to the major stage by dominating the sectional at Half Moon Bay last month, topping the field by seven strokes. Lucy celebrated the feat by going to dinner at her favorite restaurant (Little Sichuan in San Mateo) and catching a showing of "The Amazing Spiderman 2."

While golfers of all ages salute the achievement, the feat also inspires a wary eye. Navigating the terrain of "youngest ever" can be perilous.

Juli Inkster, a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame, said she wasn't even playing at age 11. She barely even played as a young teenager in Santa Cruz because, she said, "I sucked. ... I got my brains beat in and it wasn't fun."

Instead, she played just about everything else: baseball, basketball, track. Inkster's game started coming together in college, at San Jose State, where she was an All-American in 1979, '81 and '82.

Now 53, and with 31 LPGA Tour victories -- including seven majors -- to her credit, she cites a balanced childhood for her long-term success.

Inkster, who now lives in Los Altos, was asked if she had any advice for Lucy. "Enjoy the game and everything you've accomplished," she replied. "Just make sure golf doesn't define who you are."

Harry Cathrea, whose daughter was a young phenom from the East Bay, is extra cautious. Though he stressed repeatedly in an interview that he wanted his overall message to be positive, Cathrea knows from experience that there are pitfalls to early stardom.

His daughter, Casie Cathrea, of Livermore, qualified for an LPGA event at age 13 in 2009 and then became the youngest participant to make a hole-in-one in a tour event.

Thrilling as it was at the time, it came at a price.

"I can tell you firsthand," Harry Cathrea says now, "it may not be worth it all."

Their story has a happy ending. Casie, now 18, has recently relaunched her golf career and come to terms with a childhood in which she pushed too hard, too young, and sacrificed the normal perks of growing up. Friends? Nights at the movies? Those didn't come till college. After all, there were tournaments to play.

Now, when Harry Cathrea watches Lucy, he's watching to make sure there's a smile on her face.

"I didn't pay attention to the social aspect of my kid," Cathrea said. "The mistake that I made was that I got in front of boyfriends and friends and told Casie, 'You're going to play golf. Forget them. They won't be around.'

"And then when she turned 18, she discovered that she actually liked to have some of those folks around. ... I think people forget that these are kids. I did."

Casie, who has played several rounds with Lucy and admires her game, suggested that rushing to the big stage has its drawbacks. If the goal is sustained success, it might be better to play in the open as a contender, not a novelty act.

"She's 11," Casie Cathrea said. "There will be plenty of time for U.S. Opens. If you're not going to win, what's the point of going?"

Her family is doing what they can to protect her. They kept her away from the media spotlight until Tuesday's press conference, where Lucy seemed undaunted by her surroundings. She talked with sophistication about golf, and her admiration for course designer Donald Ross, who designed Pinehurst No. 2 as well as Peninsula Golf Club in San Mateo. "So I know that he loves those undulating greens,'' she said.

Lucy said she hits her drive about 230 yards, sometimes longer when she gets an adrenaline boost during tournaments. She can hit a 5-iron 170 yards.

Lucy also provided a few reminders of her age, detailing an ideal birthday playing arcade games at "Dave & Busters."

Until Tuesday, only a few basic facts were known. Lucy often plays under the watchful eye of her mother, Amy Zeng, a former table tennis player who used who work as a manager at Hewlett-Packard, and her aunt, Tao Zeng. Lucy's father, Warren Li, is a stock broker. "He's really good at it," Lucy said.

Lucy trained under several golf coaches, including for the past four years with Jim McLean, who owns Jim McLean Golf Schools. McLean, reached by phone in Miami, says Lucy "has the makeup to (handle pressure) really well. But, she's still just a little girl. It's going to be a huge stage. There will be a tremendous amount of scrutiny."

The Associated Press, in a profile about Lucy, said those who have watched her play have seen her skip down fairways and bring granola bars to club members.

But her game looks all grown up. Not long before qualifying for the U.S. Open, she won the Girls 10-11 age bracket at the first ever Drive, Chip and Putt championship at Augusta National, home of the Masters tournament.

Last year, at age 10, she was the youngest participant to reach match play at the U.S. Women's Amateur Public Links.

When Lucy qualified for the Women's Open in late May, she did so with rounds of 74 and 68 at the par-72 Old Course at Half Moon Bay.

That's the win that made history. Lexi Thompson, the previous youngest to qualify, was 12 when she earned a spot in the 2007 Women's Open at Pine Needles. (Beverly Klass played in the 1967 Women's Open when she was 10 but that predated qualifying.)

In this case, practice makes prodigy. It's not just that Lucy takes a long time setting up and analyzing a shot. It's that she does so afterward, too, assessing what she did right or wrong on a given swing. Troyanoski senses that the emphasis is on the "positiveness of the shot," that is, focusing on what to repeat in the swing rather than beating herself up over what went wrong.

Even on this grand stage, though, Lucy seems happy just to play with the big kids.

"The perfect week?" she said, repeating the question. "I just want to go out there and have fun and play the best I can and I really don't care about the outcome, it's just I want to have fun an learn. I can learn -- I want to learn a lot from these great players."

Staff reporter Steve Corkran contributed to this story. Information from The Associated Press was used in this report. Follow Daniel Brown at Twitter.com/mercbrownie.