Lilia Vu wasn’t looking to change her game after the bottom fell out of a season that had started so well, with her first LPGA victory in February and her first win at a major in April, when she outdueled Angel Yin to win a playoff at the Chevron Championship at The Woodlands, Texas.
When Vu missed the cut in four of her next five starts after the Chevron championship — including at the U.S. Women’s Open at Pebble Beach in June — she knew the problem wasn’t the clubs in her bag or flaws in her technique. The obstacle was the self-defeating thoughts that dominated her mind and eroded her confidence.
Vu, who grew up in Fountain Valley and earned all-America honors at UCLA while setting the program record of eight victories, is a perfectionist. That can be a strength. It made her probably the best putter the Bruins have had and lends authority to her clean ballstriking. But it becomes a weakness when she lets the slightest wobble shatter her focus. A shaky hole too often became a shaky round, which became a disappointing finish.
“I thought at the U.S. Open, after I played so bad, I didn’t know if I could ever win again,” she said.
Following a practice round last week in advance of the AIG Women’s Open, she sat down with her caddy of nearly a year, Cole Pensanti, to explain why she was so hard on herself and why she felt stifled by pressure to excel. It had happened to her before, pushing her into a slump after she had become the No. 1 amateur in the world, and again during a bumpy first year on the LPGA tour. She had found her way back on those occasions. She needed help to do it again.
Pensanti’s advice was simple, but it was exactly what she needed to hear.
“He told me, ‘Hey, go out there and have fun. Do your best. You know you’re good. Our only goal is to be in contention this week. And then we can go from there on the weekend,’ ” she said.
She did more than contend: she distinguished herself as a star and earned the No. 1 world ranking.
“It was just not a good mental space for me, putting that much pressure, but last week I was able to think about golf in a different way and just have fun on the golf course while just trying to be in contention,” she said. “That was a pretty easy goal for me.”
“She’s come so far. It’s hard to think back on the time she was this silent, little mouse of a girl who turned into this stone-cold killer.”
— Former UCLA women’s golf coach Carrie Forsyth
Vu was tied for the lead when play began on the final day at Walton Heath Golf Club in Surrey, England. Refusing to let doubts creep in, she dominated the final round Sunday with a five-under-par 67 for a 14-under-par 274 and a six-shot win over local favorite Charley Hull.
Half a world away, recently retired UCLA women’s golf coach Carrie Forsyth was ecstatic to see the quiet, introverted young woman who had barely spoken during her first visit to campus blossom into a confident, assertive champion.
“She’s come so far,” Forsyth said. “It’s hard to think back on the time she was this silent, little mouse of a girl who turned into this stone-cold killer.”
Vu’s ascent to the top of the Rolex women’s world rankings was confirmed Monday.
“I thought she could be No. 1 but I didn’t think it would be this quick,” said Alicia Um Holmes, who was an assistant coach when Vu played for UCLA and has succeeded Forsyth as head coach.
“When she’s confident, everything’s going well, everything’s there, I could definitely see her doing this, winning multiple times in one year.”
In winning, Vu also clinched the Rolex Annika major award (named for Anika Sorenstam) for compiling the best record in the LPGA’s five major tournaments. Vu, 25, joined Michelle Wie West as the only Americans to earn that honor and became first American to win two major LPGA championships in a season since Juli Inkster won two in 1999.
It was a lot for Vu to take in. It still is.
“I don’t think it will ever feel real,” she said by phone Wednesday. “It’s just been a crazy past couple of months but it’s just been so, so fun.”
It all began for her at the David L. Baker golf course in Fountain Valley. At first, she just tagged along to watch her dad, Douglas, and brother, Andre.
“I would follow my brother around and just try and imitate him and try to be funny,” she recalled. “My dad saw that and put a golf club in my hand and somehow I ended up better than my brother.”
She started playing at 7 and was soon playing junior events. Her father coached her, and mother, Kieu Thuy, was her caddy when she won the 2016 women’s Southern California amateur title at Rancho Santa Fe. Her mom still accompanies her on tour.
Forsyth was well aware of Vu’s amateur success and recruited her, sensing the competitive fire behind Vu’s quiet demeanor.
“She’s a really, really solid person and has a really solid family background. She was extremely driven and hard-working all throughout her college career,” Forsyth said. “She was very much like she had her path in mind, which was to be a professional golfer, and she treated that journey with the utmost respect and professionalism in the sense that, ‘This is what I want to do and this is the level of work that I’m going to put in to achieve this.’
“Some kids talk the talk. But Lilia talked the talk and walked the walk, as well. It was pretty inspiring as a coach to be around that.”
Vu credited the coaching, resources, and chance to play at various courses for preparing her for college competition, and beyond.
“Oh my gosh, I loved my time at UCLA. I was going to say I had the time of my life, but I think I’m having that right now,” Vu said, laughing. “I don’t think I could be where I’m at right now if I didn’t go to UCLA.”
She joined the LPGA tour in 2019 but made the cut only once and spent the next two seasons on the developmental tour. It wasn’t an easy step back. And it was complicated by the death of her maternal grandfather, Dinh Du, early in the COVID-19 pandemic. He had built a boat to carry his family from the uncertainties of life in post-war Vietnam to the promise of opportunity in America. The boat leaked and was overloaded but somehow they made it.
Vu had to find a way to make sure his sacrifices wouldn’t go to waste. Stepping back to the developmental tour was the right detour.
“My junior golf career, I had so much fun, and in college. I turned pro and all of a sudden there’s all this pressure to make money and to perform well,” she said. “That just made me spiral and I was so hard on myself and I just felt like there was no light at the end of the tunnel.
“I think that needed to happen, though, because I think I know myself better than I’ve ever known myself and that really helped with golf not being the end-all, be-all of my identity.”
She also found inspiration in a chance on-course meeting with businessman and amateur golfer John Ply. She simply wanted to be outside, with no one around, while the LPGA tour went on without her. He asked her why she wasn’t at the tournament that was being played. She told him she was in a slump and struggling to escape. He recommended some inspirational books, giving her his copies when she couldn’t find an open bookstore.
He later wrote a self-help book, “You can be the best,” and mentioned her. “I spoke to him [Tuesday] about how he believed in me and helped guide me, and now we’re full circle here,” she said. “It’s been a really crazy ride.”
In many ways, her ride is only beginning. Um Holmes believes if Vu continues to have fun and keeps the pressure at bay, she can enjoy consistent success.
“I think if she’s really able to be disciplined with her mental side she can do it. Because she’s talented. She hits it far enough. She hits it straight enough,” Um Holmes said. “I would say she putts better than most of the LPGA players. She is just gifted in that respect.”
Forsyth suggested Vu could some day rank among the game’s greats.
“Now that she’s sort of reached this level, now she knows she can do it, look out. I just think she’s going to keep doing it,” Forsyth said. “Things change and you go through changes in your life and whatnot. I guess time will tell but the pieces are there for that, depending on how she handles life’s challenges and changes that come along.
“Will she be Annika? Will she be Lorena [Ochoa]?” Forsyth asked, invoking the names of two of the greatest female golfers. “She could be really close.”
It couldn’t have happened if she hadn’t found the joy in the process.
“I still feel like the same me, to be honest,” she said. “I feel like I’m just going to keep the same mindset and just have fun playing golf. And when I just get in my own way, I have to reevaluate everything and say, ‘Hey, people would love to be in your position. You need to be grateful for where you’re at.’
“And I think just enjoying this journey. Not a lot of people get to say they get to play golf as a career. I’m just going to do my thing and try my best and have fun and try to win a lot of golf tournaments.”
That will require some rearranging of the trophy room at the family home in Fountain Valley, where her 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” about it.