Li un­fazed by com­pe­ti­tion, ner­vous about meet­ing Woods

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Steve DiMeglio

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.

Eat­ing was.

“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.

MANAN VATSYAYANA/AFP-GETTY IM­AGES

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.

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