Li Haotong makes good impression at Masters
AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Li Haotong made his first bogey in his first Masters, and he was lucky it wasn’t worse.
He was caught in the trees left of the 10th fairway. It took him four shots just to reach the green, and he still had 7 feet to navigate. Li made the bogey putt, a big relief for the 22-year-old from China.
“Literally almost say, ‘Amen’ down there,” Li said with his infectious smile.
Maybe it was a premonition.
Li proceeded to make three straight birdies around Amen Corner on Thursday, starting with a 35-footer from off the green using the belly of his wedge en route to a 69. He doesn’t have a deep understanding of the tradition at Augusta National, but he could tell this was special.
“Quite lucky today,” Li said.
It’s part of his self-deprecating nature that made Li a favorite of Web.com Tour players when he first played a full circuit in America. But his peers know better, whether they watch him play or look at his results.
He won four times on smaller circuits as a teenager, winning the Order of Merit on the PGA Tour China Series. He won his first European Tour event in 2016 at the Volvo Open in his native China. But his most recent big moments in golf really got everyone’s attention.
Li qualified for the Masters by closing with a 63 at Royal Birkdale in the British Open last summer. Earlier this year, he rallied to beat Rory McIlroy in a duel at the Dubai Desert Classic that allowed him to crack the top 50 in the world for the first time.
“Take a lot of confidence from Rory that week,” Li said. “Actually, after that week, I’ve been struggling a little bit on my putting. I’ve been working a lot on that, and you can see today I make a lot of par putts. So I just have to keep going.”
It was a wild back nine for Li, who made only one par at No. 17. For close to an hour, however, his name was atop those white leaderboards around Augusta National with Tony Finau until Jordan Spieth took over in the final hour of a tough day.
Li was three shots behind, with no complaints.
“I thought I’m going to be nervous on the first tee,” he said. “It was all right. So just quite happy to have such a great opening round.”
Li was only 17 when another Chinese player, 14-year-old Guan Tianling, played in the Masters as the Asia-Pacific Amateur champion and made the cut. It was a sign that China was slowly emerging in golf. Also in the field this week is Lin Yuxin, who won the Asia-Pacific Amateur last year. He opened with a 79.
Li is leading the way.
He entered the week at No. 42 in the world and played boldly in his first official trip around Augusta National. Li first played the course a week ago for practice, and it was everything he imagined from the images he saw on television.
“Everything is like amazing,” Li said.
He doesn’t remember the first Masters he watched, only that he would stay up to watch in Shanghai when the tournament came on at midnight.
Y.E. Yang of South Korea is the only Asian-born player to win a major, taking down Tiger Woods in 2009 at the PGA Championship at Hazeltine. With each major, more players from Asian countries are starting to become regulars in the field. For this Masters, four players are from Japan, two are from China, one from Thailand, one from South Korea and one from India.
Typical of so many players his age, it was Woods who helped to inspire Li.
Woods first played in China in the HSBC Champions in 2005, the year Woods won the Masters and British Open. Li’s father had a friend who wanted his own son to start playing golf, so Li agreed to tag along for the first lesson.
“His son needed a friend, so my dad brought me to the golf course,” Li said in an interview two years ago. “I loved my first time on the golf course. I thought, ‘This is awesome.’ After that day, I started to play golf.”
He said that friend of his now is in the military. Li is in the Masters, and doing just fine.