Li dis­cov­ers some con­sis­tency

Bo­gey-free sec­ond round puts young Chi­nese star on top of leader­board

Chicago Sun-Times - - SPORTS - BY DOUG FERGUSON

SAN FRANCISCO — Hard­ing Park is renowned for pro­duc­ing cham­pi­ons who are among the best in golf, from By­ron Nel­son to Tiger Woods, and a long list of Hall of Famers and ma­jor cham­pi­ons in be­tween.

Half­way through the PGA Cham­pi­onship, Li Hao­tong de­liv­ered his foot­note in his­tory. With five birdies through 10 holes, and eight tough pars down the stretch, Li had a 5-un­der 65 on Fri­day and be­came the first Chi­nese player to lead af­ter any round of any ma­jor. Sur­prised? So was he.

Li was in China as the pan­demic shut down golf. He re­turned three weeks ago and missed the cut, and then tied for 75th in a 78man field at a World Golf Cham­pi­onship.

“I didn’t even [think] I could play like this … got no con­fi­dence,” Li said. “Prob­a­bly it helped me clear my mind a lit­tle bit.”

His cre­den­tials are all over the map. Li is one of six play­ers to shoot 63 in the fi­nal round of a ma­jor. He also was so dis­en­gaged in his Pres­i­dents Cup de­but that he was benched for two days.

Still young, of­ten in­con­sis­tent, for­ever fear­less, Li is ca­pa­ble of just about any­thing on a big stage in golf.

The 25-year-old full of en­ergy and an­tics, he was bo­gey-free and posted an 8-un­der 132, giv­ing him a two-shot lead over a large group that in­cluded — who else? — Brooks Koepka, the two-time de­fend­ing cham­pion.

Much far­ther back was Woods, who found more fair­ways but strug­gled on the greens, rank­ing 131st in the key put­ting statis­tic against the 156-man field. He flirted with the cut line un­til a birdie on the 16th kept him safe, and his 72 put him eight shots be­hind.

Koepka was more wor­ried about a tight hip than a nag­ging left knee, and he had a trainer come out to stretch and twist him three times along the back nine. It loos­ened him up enough for Koepka to post a 68. It’s the fifth time in his last eight ma­jors that he has gone into the week­end within three shots of the lead.

Also at 6-un­der 134 were for­mer PGA cham­pion Ja­son Day (69), for­mer U.S. Open cham­pion Justin Rose (68), Tommy Fleet­wood (64), Daniel Berger (67) and Mike Lorenzo-Vera, who closed with a 15-foot bo­gey putt for a 68. Two dozen play­ers were sep­a­rated by five shots at the half­way point.

Li is a two-time win­ner on the Euro­pean Tour, most re­cently in 2018 at the Dubai Desert Clas­sic when he ral­lied down the stretch to beat McIl­roy by one shot.

He was sen­sa­tional in the fi­nal round of the 2017 Bri­tish Open at Royal Birk­dale — only five other play­ers have 63 in the fi­nal round of a ma­jor. But he had a ter­ri­ble week in his Pres­i­dents Cup de­but at Royal Mel­bourne in De­cem­ber.

“He’s got the arse­nal to take it low,” said Adam Scott, his team­mate at Royal Mel­bourne. “But we don’t see that kind of con­sis­tency out of him, and that prob­a­bly matches his per­son­al­ity a lit­tle bit. He’s young, though, and that’s the kind of golf he plays. He plays pretty much all guns blaz­ing, and when it comes off, it’s re­ally good.” ✶

JAMIE SQUIRE/GETTY IM­AGES

Li Hao­tong, 25, shot a 5-un­der 65 at Hard­ing Park. Li holds a two-stroke edge and is the first player from China to lead af­ter any round of a ma­jor.

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