NAPLES, Fla. — One memory has accompanied Lilia Vu through this journey. Through the ups and downs. Through the frustration and second thoughts. Even through the exhilaration.
The man she says is “the best person I’ve ever known,” is no longer with us. But Dinh Du, Vu’s grandfather, played a major role in Vu becoming the first American in nine years to win the LPGA Rolex Player of the Year.
And if there is any doubt, Vu was asked about her grandfather Sunday after shooting the low round of the day (65) at the CME Group Tour Championship, which gave her a fourth-place finish. She raised both her hands, backside facing front.
“I think about him all the time,” she said. “My nails are koi fish. He raised like 50 koi fish in his backyard when he was alive. I always think about him. He’s always next to me. Even when I get down on myself, I kind of think … okay, grandpa didn’t do all this for you to get upset over one shot.”
Vu, 26, entered the final event of the LPGA’s 2023 season with a 27-point lead over Celine Boutier in the Player of the Year race. She never relinquished that lead, finishing 21-under 267, six shots behind winner Amy Yang.
But this journey that started in her native Fountain Valley, California, and continued with a decorated career at UCLA before turning pro in 2019, was possible because of one man.
Vu’s grandfather got his family and others out of Vietnam by building a boat. He would leave his family and head to the countryside for a month at a time to work on the project. Finally, in 1982, Vu’s mother, Yvonne, and her siblings were loaded into the vessel that was meant for 54 people. But others saw this as their way to freedom, too, and soon about 30 more had arrived.
And nobody was turned away.
“My grandpa is the reason why I’m here,” Vu said earlier this season.
Soon the boat had sprung a leak and two days later, they were rescued by the USS Brewton, the naval ship that transported the body of the Vietnam Unknown Soldier to California in 1984 before it was flown for burial at Arlington National Cemetery.
“I’m kind of like him,” Vu said of her grandfather. “He went away a month at a time to go build this boat, right? He was just quietly hard-working. I think I’m kind of the same way. I’m not very vocal with what I do … I kind of just write my goals and put it away. I don’t openly say all the stuff. I wait until I achieve them. I think I have that same hard-working passion my grandpa does.”
Vu started the 2022 season at the Gainbridge LPGA at Boca Rio ranked No. 228 in the world. She was No. 12 early this year after winning her first LPGA championship and the first of her four victories this season, at the Honda LPGA Thailand.
Six months later, she reached No. 1 after capturing the Women’s British Open and has held it since, with the exception of two weeks.
“I just keep thinking about the last thing he said to me, ‘Play your best,’ ” Vu said. “I think about that every day and I try to do that every day.”
Vu had difficulty dealing with expectations and pressure during her first few years as a professional. She even considered changing courses, from professional golf to law school, before being convinced by her mom to not give up just yet.
She treated every shot like “life and death.” And said her rookie year “destroyed” her.
This came, not coincidently in 2020, during the pandemic, when her grandfather died.
“I just remember being miserable,” she said. “This is like the dream, everything we ever worked for was to be out here, and I was just not in the right mindset for it.”
Still, nothing came easy and that pressure manifested itself on the 18th green of this tournament a year ago when she cried after finishing in the middle of the 60-woman field.
“I just wanted to win so badly,” she said. “I had a lot of fun in college. And once I turned pro, the fun went away because I put so much pressure.”
Vu thought back to what allowed her to have fun when she was in college and decided it was being part of the team. So she surrounded herself with people who recreated the kind of atmosphere she had while compiling eight titles at UCLA and becoming the winningest player in school history.
That and the inspiration she got from the man who led a young woman to adorn her fingernails with koi fish.
“When he was alive, he was always working in the backyard, working on cars, doing stuff, and he was just a quiet guy,” Vu said about her grandfather. “I feel like, I don’t know, he’s the best person I’ve ever known.
“Oh, my God I’m going to cry.”
With that, Vu went off to the 18th green at Tiburon Golf Club to collect another trophy. This time with tears welling in her eyes for all the right reasons.