Inside Rob Houlding Golf Academy in Richmond, BC, Michelle Liu steps up to the tee, adjusting her feet as she readies her stance. She takes a half swing, practicing where her driver needs to meet the golf ball. Length-wise, the driver is the proper size for her but the club itself seemed like it should be too heavy for Michelle to lift.
Her mom Jenny Xu and long-time coach Rob Houlding patiently watch Michelle as she looks up at the computer-generated golf course on the big screen. Michelle steadies her feet again and sets up her club against the ball. She exhales slowly.
Michelle puts all her force in her swing, lifting the club over her head only to bring it down in one smooth motion. As the club hits the ball, Michelle turns her body towards the screen, carrying her swing through with her. It all seems effortless for Michelle, as it should. She has been playing golf since she was 6 years old.
“[Michelle] can focus for a long period of time and is very determined to do well. She works harder than just about anybody at it. Practicing, taking lessons, working out in the gym. She does all the right things that top athletes need to do,” Houlding said.
Michelle’s interest in golf started when she participated in golf camps held at local golf courses in the Lower Mainland. After seeing how much her youngest daughter liked the sport, Jenny Liu signed Michelle up for professional classes. Michelle has loved the sport ever since.
“When you are on the golf course and you make a long putt for birdie or you save a really hard-to-save par, moments like that are pretty cool,” Michelle said.
Michelle, now 12 years old, has come along way since her first golf camp. In 2017, she won both the 2017 IMG Academy Junior World and the US Junior World Championships in her age category. Michelle commented on how she enjoys being in tournaments and playing competitive golf.
“I think that there is a lot of things that don’t really happen when you are just playing golf for fun. It’s the idea that you’re mental game matters a lot. The way you’re thinking when you stand over a putt or what’s going on in your head can really affect what’s going to happen,” she said.
Michelle’s accolades continue to rise. Just this past July, Michelle won top Canadian Honours at the Canadian Women’s Amateur Championship, which earned her a place in the Canadian Pacific Women’s Open Championship, held at the Magna Golf Club in Ontario late August. Even more, Michelle made history as the youngest golfer to ever participate in the tournament.
“I was very impressed with how she handled it, even on the first hole. In the draw, she was playing with two other girls who can hit the ball a very long way and she had to hit first. There were maybe about 600 people watching above the right-hand-side of the tee box in a line. She stepped up like a little tour player and whacked it down the middle of the fairway and people went crazy. For me, it was quite emotional to watch,” Houlding said.
Unfortunately, Michelle was knocked out of the tournament after scoring a 10-over-par-82 on Friday and a 9-over-81 on Saturday. Houlding explained that the field at Magna was much longer than what Michelle was used to. In comparison, she shot a four-round one-over-par at CWA Championship in Red Deer.
“For tennis or volleyball, the net is always that high or the court is always that big. For golf, the course is different at each location. Playing on your home course definitely gives you an advantage when it comes to putting and reading breaks. If you played that golf course a large number of times, you know that if you put it this way, it will slope off the green,” Michelle said.
Despite the stat results of the tournament, Michelle felt that the overall experience participating at the Women’s Open was incredible.
“I got to meet a lot of people that I look up to. It was a great course, great condition, so I am glad I was able to play it. It’s a totally different experience,” she said.
Now that it has been a couple of weeks into the new school year, Michelle is getting settled in and starting to prep for her 8th-grade year at the private school she attends in Vancouver. It will be a busy year, as Michelle will have to balance school life with golf, as she practices 3 to 4 times a week at Houlding’s golf academy. She also plays field hockey and is on the debate team at her school.
However, Michelle isn’t worried about how she is going to manage all of her activities. She has a strong support system at school, with her peers and teachers cheering her on. She also says her parents are her endless support, both on and of the golf course.
“There are a lot of things that only your parents will do for you,” Michelle said. “My mom drives very long distances to drop me off at certain golf tournaments. Most of the time, she watches all 18 holes of golf. Usually, you have to walk if your a spectator and sometimes the courses are hilly. She watches all 18 holes regardless.”
Indeed, Jenny Xu was at the Women’s Open, watching her daughter play all 18 holes faithfully, along with hundreds of other spectators and media. It was also a different experience seeing a 12-year-old compete on one of the biggest stages in golf.
Before Michelle, the youngest player was Canadian golf sensation Brooke Henderson, who played in the Women’s Open when she was 15 years old. Needless to say, the bar is set pretty high for Michelle. However, her coach Houlding believes that she is handling all the pressure well.
“It’s pretty remarkable but she is handling it in stride. She knows that is yesterday and we have to look out for tomorrow. But it is nice for her to enjoy the moment,” he said.
Michelle also says she feels that she is staying well-grounded throughout this entire experience. She says she is excited to practice her public-speaking skills with the press to help her prep for her school’s debate club.
“I have a lot of experience in debate and public speaking, so I’d like to be able to know that these are skills I can incorporate into golf. It’s definitely good to do these sorts of things when I am younger and that I have this experience in case I ever play in professional golf or have other experiences like this.”
Now, Michelle is working on her next goals, taking one step at a time. In October, she will be participating in the AJGA Junior All-Star Invitational at Reynolds Lake Oconee in Georgia, as well as a few other local tournaments in Vancouver. She is training 3 to 4 times a week with Houlding. At her practice, he lets her know that on average, she hits under par. Each month, he sets up a new goal for her to beat. They are working at her goals together, bit by bit.
“For me, it’s not really about golf. It’s about building people that are strong-minded and confident,” Houlding said.
For Michelle, she knows that taking it day by day will help her achieve her long-term goals. She wants to earn her way back into the Canadian Women’s Open Championship again next year, which is being hosted at her home golf course at Shaughnessy Golf & Country Club in Vancouver. Later on, she wants to get a post-secondary education and play college golf. Eventually, Michelle hopes to play professional golf.
“If you work hard, your hard work will definitely pay off. It might not happen right away. It might not happen a year from now, but somewhere along the way, something will happen,” she said.
In the meantime, Michelle is focused on the now.
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