Li discovers some consistency
Bogey-free second round puts young Chinese star on top of leaderboard
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.” ✶
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.