Lilia Vu Not wanting to change her game after a season that started so well hit rock bottom with her first LPGA win in February and her first win at a Major in April when she passed Angel Yin to win a playoff at the Chevron Championship in The Woodlands, Texas.
When Vu missed the cut in four of her next five starts after the Chevron Championship – including the US Women’s Open at Pebble Beach in June – she knew the problem wasn’t the clubs in her bag or her lack of technique . The obstacle was the self-destructive thoughts that dominated her mind and eroded her self-confidence.
Vu, who grew up in Fountain Valley and earned UCLA All-America honors and the program record eight wins, is a perfectionist. That can be a strength. It made her possibly the best putter the Bruins have ever had and gives authority to her clean ball strike. But it becomes a weakness when she allows the slightest shake to destroy her concentration. Too often, a shaky hole turned into a shaky lap, leading to a disappointing ending.
“I thought at the US Open, after playing so badly, I didn’t know if I could ever win again,” she said.
After a practice round last week in advance AIG Women’s Open, she sat down with her nearly year-old caddy, Cole Pensanti, to explain why she was so hard on herself and why she felt suffocated by the pressure to perform at her best. That had happened to her before, throwing her into a crisis after becoming the world’s No. 1 amateur and again during a bumpy first year on the LPGA tour. On those occasions she had found her way back. She needed help to do it again.
Pensanti’s advice was simple, but exactly what she needed to hear.
“He said to me, ‘Hey, get out there and have fun.’ Give your best. you know you are good Our only goal is to be in the race this week. And then we can continue from there at the weekend,” she said.
She did more than fight: she distinguished herself as a star and earned the award No. 1 in the world rankings.
“It just wasn’t a good mental space for me to put that much pressure on, but last week I was able to think differently about golf and just have fun on the golf course while just trying to be in the race,” she said. “That was a pretty easy goal for me.”
“She’s come this far. It’s hard for me to think back to when she was this taciturn little mouse girl who turned into this stone-cold killer.”
— Former UCLA women’s golf coach Carrie Forsyth
When play began on the final day at Walton Heath Golf Club in Surrey, England, Vu was tied at the top. She refused to be in doubt and dominated Sunday’s final round with a five-under par score of 67 for a 14-under par score of 274 and a six-stroke win over local hero Charley Hull.
Half a world away, recently retired UCLA women’s golf coach Carrie Forsyth was thrilled to see the quiet, introverted young woman, who had barely spoken on her first visit to campus, blossom into a confident, confident advocate.
“She made it this far,” Forsyth said. “It’s hard to think back to when she was this taciturn little mouse girl who turned into this stone-cold killer.”
Vu’s rise to the top of the Rolex Women’s World Ranking was confirmed on Monday.
“I thought she could be No. 1, but I didn’t think it would be that quick,” said Alicia Um Holmes, who was an assistant coach when Vu played for UCLA and succeeded Forsyth as head coach is.
“If she is confident, everything is going well, everything is there, I can definitely imagine that she can do it and have several wins within a year.”
With the win, Vu also secured the Rolex Annika Major Award (named after Anika Sorenstam) for best record in the five major LPGA tournaments. Vu, 25, was the only American to receive the honor, along with Michelle Wie West, and was the first American to win two LPGA major championships in one season since July Inkster won two LPGA major championships in 1999.
It was a lot for Vu to digest. It still is.
“I don’t think it will ever feel real,” she said over the phone on Wednesday. “The last few months have been just crazy, but it’s just been so, so much fun.”
It all started for her at David L. Baker Golf Course in Fountain Valley. At first she just came by to babysit her father Douglas and brother Andre.
“I followed my brother everywhere and just tried to imitate him and be funny,” she recalls. “My dad saw that and put a golf club in my hand, and somehow I ended up being better than my brother.”
She began playing at age 7 and was soon competing in junior events. Her father coached her and mother Kieu Thuy was her caddie when she won the 2016 Southern California women’s amateur title at Rancho Santa Fe. Her mother still accompanies her on tour.
Well aware of Vu’s amateur success, Forsyth recruited her, sensing the competitive pressure behind Vu’s calm demeanor.
“She’s a really, really solid person and comes from a really solid family background. “She was extremely motivated and hardworking throughout her college career,” Forsyth said. “She felt like she had her path in mind, which was to be a professional golfer, and she approached that path with the utmost respect and professionalism, like, ‘This is what I want to do and this is the level.’ how much work I will put in to achieve this.”
“Some kids talk talk. But Lilia said whatever she wanted, and did. As a coach it was quite inspiring to be around.”
Vu appreciated the coaching, resources and opportunity to take different courses in preparation for college competition and beyond.
“Oh my god, I loved my time at UCLA. I was going to say I had the best time of my life, but I think I’m having it right now,” Vu said, laughing. “I don’t think I could be where I am now if I hadn’t gone to UCLA.”
She joined the LPGA tour in 2019 but only made it once and spent the next two seasons on the development tour. It wasn’t an easy step backwards. And it was further complicated by the death of her maternal grandfather, Dinh Du, early in the COVID-19 pandemic. He had built a boat to transport his family from the uncertainties of life in post-war Vietnam to the prospect of opportunity in America. The boat leaked and was overloaded, but somehow they made it.
Vu had to find a way to ensure his sacrifices weren’t wasted. Going back to the development tour was the right detour.
“I had so much fun in my junior golf career, even in college. I turned pro and all of a sudden the pressure to make money and perform well is there,” she said. “It just freaked me out, I was so hard on myself and just felt like there was no light at the end of the tunnel.
“However, I think it had to happen because I think I know myself better than ever and that’s really helped me to let golf not be the be-all and end-all of my identity.”
She also found inspiration during a chance meeting on the golf course with businessman and amateur golfer John Ply. She just wanted to be outside with no one around while the LPGA tour went on without her. He asked her why she wasn’t participating in the tournament that was going on. She told him she was in a crisis and was struggling to escape. He recommended some inspirational books to her and gave her his copies when she couldn’t find an open bookstore.
He later wrote a self-help book called You Can Be the Best and mentioned her. “I talked to him [Tuesday] about how he believed in me and helped guide me, and now this is where it comes full circle,” she said. “It was a really crazy ride.”
In many ways, their journey is just beginning. Um Holmes believes Vu can continue to be successful if she keeps having fun and keeps the pressure at bay.
“I think if she’s really able to discipline her mental side, she can do it. Because she’s talented. She hits it far enough. She hits it just enough,” Um Holmes said. “I would say she putts better than most LPGA players. She’s just gifted in that regard.”
Forsyth suspected that Vu might one day be one of the game’s greats.
“Now that she’s reached that level and knows she can do it, watch out. I just think she’s going to continue like this,” Forsyth said. “Things change and you go through changes in your life and so on. I guess time will tell, but the makings are there depending on how she handles life’s challenges and changes.
“Will she be Annika? Will she be Lorena? [Ochoa]?” asked Forsyth, citing the names of two of golf’s greatest women. “She could be very close.”
It couldn’t have happened if she hadn’t found joy in the process.
“To be honest, I still feel like myself,” she said. “I feel like I’m just going to keep the same attitude and just enjoy the game of golf. And if I just get in my own way, I have to reevaluate everything and say, “Hey, people would love to be in your position.” “You have to be thankful for where you are.”
“And I think I’m just enjoying this journey. Not many people can say that they are allowed to play golf as a profession. I’ll just do my thing and do my best, have fun and try to win a lot of golf tournaments.”
This will require a makeover of the trophy room in the family’s Fountain Valley home, where their junior golf awards are still on display.
“Maybe my dad will make some room for my other trophies and potential trophies,” she said.
No “maybe” involved.