From $4K in 2019 to leading at the 2023 Chevron Championship, Lilia Vu is fulfilling her major potential

THE WOODLANDS, Texas — Five years ago, it’s conceivable that Lilia Vu — the winningest player in the history of UCLA women’s golf with eight wins, not to mention titles at the World Amateur Team Championship, Curtis Cup and Palmer Cup — pictured days like these when she was sitting atop the leaderboard at a major after 36 holes.

But just a couple years ago? After the grind of a 2019 debut LPGA season sucked the life out of her golf game, relegating her to a pair of years on the Symetra (now Epson) Tour?

“Two years ago, maybe not. I think I’ve grown a lot since COVID, and I think I just never looked back,” Vu said Friday after she fired a 32 on the front nine at the Chevron Championship.

“I was in such a bad mindset my rookie year. Everything was life or death, and that’s not how I see things anymore. I feel like there’s always a solution to any problem, so I just try to stay positive, even though I get really angry sometimes when I make a mistake. I just try to look up and be positive.”

There’s plenty for Vu to be positive about these days. After following up Thursday’s 68 with a streaky 69 on Friday, Vu walked off the Nicklaus Course at The Club at Carlton Woods atop the leaderboard that also features names like Patty Tavatanakit and Nelly Korda.

It’s a far cry from that first year, when Vu made just one cut in nine starts and took home a whopping $3,830 in prize money. The winner at the LPGA’s first major of the year takes home $765,000.

Cole Pensanti, the caddie for Lilia Vu, points out a spot on the fringe before she putts on the 16th green during the second round of the 2023 Chevron Championship. (Photo: Thomas Shea-USA TODAY Sports)

Of course, there’s plenty of golf to be played and Vu will certainly face obstacles over the next two days, including a weather forecast that could mess with Saturday’s tee times. She found adversity on the back nine during the second round, posting back-to-back bogeys on Nos. 15 and 16, but snapped out of the funk with a birdie on the finishing hole. A driver that couldn’t miss on the front nine found a few patches of rough.

The field is as thick as the Bermudagrass lining the fairways with names like Tavatanakit, the 2021 champion, taking aim. After a scintillating 31 on the font, Tavatanakit sits at 6 under, just a shot behind Vu. She said during her second-round 67 that she was “in the zone and just taking it shot by shot.” Nelly Korda and Marina Alex are also T-2 at 6 under through 36 holes.

But for Vu, this week could mark the final realization of a potential that many have long been waiting for her to reach. The 25-year-old has shot 70 or lower in 13 of her 14 rounds this season, winning her first LPGA title in Thailand in February and adding three top-15 finishes since.

She credits a stronger mental resolve and caddie Cole Pensanti for bouncing through the tough times with less damage these days. If she does win her first major, Vu knows it will take all that she’s learned through a stretch that took her to some dark places.

“I think it’s just all mental. I just wanted to win so badly towards the end of last season and put too much pressure on myself, and now I’m just allowing whatever to happen happen and try and have fun out there,” she said. “I think that’s more of just an accumulation of all the self-help and personal development books I’ve read over COVID, and I just had a lot of time to read that stuff.

“I try to remind myself that it’s a really tough week. Everybody is going to make mistakes. It’s just how I come back from it, and then just try and make birdie the next hole and just let it go. It takes a lot out of me. I think Cole does a good job of trying to get me back into a better mood, but yeah, I’m just trying to be nice to myself this week.”