Li unfazed by competition, nervous about meeting Woods
Speaking little English and playing golf weren’t the most difficult challenges China’s Haotong Li faced when he came to the USA to play on the Web.com Tour in 2015 after he dominated the inaugural PGA Tour China with three victories in 2014.
“The most difficult part is America bread,” Li said ahead of his debut Thursday in the Genesis Open at Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, Calif. “It’s really tough for me, because I’ve been eating rice and noodles growing up, so it’s very tough. You can’t even imagine.”
The dining roadblock hasn’t stopped his ascent up the ranks against the best golfers in the world.
Last year, Li, just 22, lit up the famous yellow scoreboards at the British Open with a final-round 63 to finish third behind champion Jordan Spieth and runner-up Matt Kuchar. The late heroics earned him a trip to this year’s Masters.
“I didn’t realize how big it was for myself,” Li said. “But after a couple days I realized this (was a) huge thing for me and gave me a lot of confidence. When I play, I just say, ‘Oh, I can finish third on the major, I can play well anywhere.’ ”
That included the Middle East. Last month, he went toe-to-toe with fourtime major winner Rory McIlroy in the final two rounds of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic and made four birdies on the last six holes, including the final two, to win by one shot over McIlroy. With the victory, his second on the European Tour, Li became the first player from China to move inside the top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking. He’s presently ranked No. 33.
In winning his sixth title as a professional, the tall, lanky Li shot 23 under in Dubai, a tournament record. He also carded 30 birdies to shatter the record of 27 set by Tiger Woods in 2001.
That last bit of info didn’t come up Tuesday morning when Li met Woods, the tournament host this week, for the first time.
Woods gave Li a sponsor’s exemption to play this week.
“It was a lovely experience, and he’s the first guy to make me nervous on the PGA Tour pretty much,” Li said. “He’s my golfing hero. It’s such a big honor to meet him. … Especially need to thank Tiger for giving me the sponsor invite, that’s just very helpful. It’s so exciting to play this week.”
While Li is a member of the European Tour, he will make plenty of starts on the PGA Tour, beginning this week. He’ll also play in the World Golf Championships-Mexico Championship and in the Arnold Palmer Invitational before heading to Magnolia Lane for the first time.
With each tournament — and successful finish — Li’s popularity increases in China. He said he’s not close to superstar status in his country but little by little he’s getting recognized more and more as the game continues to grow in China. And he’s sure to garner a lot of attention when the first major of the year is played in April.
“It’s kind of like a dream come true,” Li said of his appearance in the Masters. “It’s definitely going to be a long week down there. I’ve experienced majors a couple times, so I may just go there, play it like a regular event, and get there like Monday, Tuesday.
“Just hopefully enjoy that week and wish I can play well down there.”
He said the same thing about this week’s tournament.
Haotong Li is the first player from China to make the top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking, and this week he’s No. 33.