HONOLULU (AP) - Li Haotong is no stranger to the big stage, even as a 20-year-old from China who never had any intention of playing golf.
The year that Tiger Woods competed in China for the first time at the 2005 HSBC Champions, Li’s father had a friend who wanted his own son to start training in golf. Li agreed to tag along for the first lesson.
“His son needed a friend, so my dad brought me to the golf course,” said Li, who after only one year playing the Web.com Tour no longer needs a translator to get by. “I loved my first time on the golf course. I thought, ‘This is awesome.’ After that day, I started to play golf.”
That friend is now in the military. Li is in fast company and holding his own.
Consider the last year.
Li played with Bubba Watson in the Volvo China Open and beat the two-time Masters champion by nine shots. Li tied for sixth, three shots behind the winner. Six months later, Li was one shot out of the lead going into the final round of the World Golf Championship in Shanghai and played in the penultimate group with Jordan Spieth. Li got off to a miserable start before the largest gallery, steadied himself and tied for seventh with the world No. 1 player.
It was enough to give Li the highest finish ever by a Chinese player in a PGA Tour-sanctioned event. Liang Wen-chong tied for eighth in the 2010 PGA Championship.
“He was really off with his game,” Spieth said after the round. “But man, did he have heart.”
Li now is looking toward another big stage - the Olympics - in a young career that appears to be moving as quickly as the golf ball leaves his club face.
The Olympic qualification allows no more than two players from each country - four if they are among the top 15 in the world ranking - until the field reaches 60 players.
Wu Ashun, who won the Volvo China Open, is the highest-ranked Chinese player at No. 173. Li is next at No. 175, so both would be eligible if the cutoff was this week (they currently are Nos. 44 and 45 in the Olympic ranking). Right behind at No. 189 is Liang, so the fight for an Olympic berth might come down to the July 11 cutoff.
Wu and Liang primarily play on the Japan Golf Tour, which puts Li at a slight disadvantage. The sole focus on the Web.com Tour is earning enough money for a PGA Tour card. Plus, the Japan Golf Tour offers slightly more world ranking points.
“For me to get in the (Olympics), it’s hard,” Li said. “They have Japan, Asia. They don’t worry about (tour) cards. When they feel good, they go play. But I need to play every week almost for me. I just have to play great every week.”
Don’t get the idea he is stressing.
Li won three times and captured the Order of Merit in the inaugural season of the PGA Tour China Series in 2014, which made him the first Chinese player to have full Web.com Tour status. Tall and thin, this a happy kid who can barely get through a sentence without a burst of laughter.
Among the Americans who have befriended him is Peter Malnati, who in November won his first PGA Tour event. Malnati said that when they first met, Li could only gesture when asking if he could join him for a practice round. By the end of the year, there was no shortage of conversation and laughs.
“He hits these missiles that don’t curve,” Malnati said. “He’s going to be a stud when he matures. We used to joke - he went through a lot of caddies - that caddying for him might be the toughest job because he played so fearlessly.”
Li makes his Olympic push just three years after 14-year-old Guan Tianlang became the youngest player to make the cut in the Masters, or any 72-hole major. Li had already turned pro, and he has emerged as China’s brightest young star.
He finished 49th on the Web.com Tour money list, mainly from too many pedestrian final rounds (his 72.06 scoring average ranked 114th). He missed the cut by one shot at the Sony Open last week in his first domestic PGA Tour appearance before heading off to the Web.com Tour.
The Olympics are huge in China, even for a sport like golf that has not been part of the program since 1904.
“My grandfather died in 2006,” he said. “In 2008, the Olympics were in Beijing, and all he wanted to do was watch, but he passed away. My father said if I can play in the Olympics, he will caddie for me, for no other reason than my grandfather.”
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