20-year-old Chinese player on the cusp of history at HSBC
ABS-CBN Sports on Nov 08, 2015 07:35 AM
Li Haotong of China walks on the 18th hole during the third round of the HSBC Champions golf tournament at the Sheshan International Golf Club in Shanghai, China Saturday, Nov. 7, 2015. (AP Photo)
DOUG FERGUSON, AP Golf Writer
SHANGHAI (AP) — Li Haotong practically grew up with the HSBC Champions. He took part in its junior golf program, watching over the last decade as players like Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els competed at Sheshan International.
And now the 20-year-old Li is one round away from a chance to win this World Golf Championship, which was nearly too much for him to digest Saturday.
"This tournament is so big — it's too big," Li said after a 6-under 66 that left him one shot out of the lead going into the final round. "I know that the final day, a lot of people are going to be making a lot of birdies. That's why I thought my goal of this tournament would be making the top 10, because making the top 10 will already be a highlight and a milestone for my short career.
"I hope that tomorrow I can do well and finish at the position where I want to."
Kevin Kisner was at 16-under 200 and leading, and Russell Knox was to return Sunday morning to play the 18th hole with a chance to share the lead. Li was tied with Dustin Johnson, who won the HSBC Champions two years ago. Two shots behind was Jordan Spieth, the Masters and U.S. Open champion.
So when Li was asked if he could win, he switched from Chinese to his limited English.
"I don't think so," he with a big laugh and infectious smile.
He sure looked capable during a third round at Sheshan International that featured big swings on the leaderboard, a big charge from Spieth and endless cheers from a Chinese gallery who had reason to hope that one of their own could deliver a young golfing nation its biggest victory.
He opened with four straight birdies and never faded. Li dropped only one shot on the tough par-5 fifth hole. When he found the water on the par-5 14th, he still managed to scramble for par. And he followed that with a 5-iron into 4 feet for birdie on the 15th that pulled him within one shot of the lead.
Liang Wenchong is the only Chinese player to finish in the top 10 at a PGA Tour event. He tied for eighth at Whistling Straits in the 2010 PGA Championship.
"If it's destined for me to do something good, you cannot stop it," Li said. "So what I will try to do is I will do my best tomorrow and see how things go."
This is what HSBC had in mind when it started this tournament in 2005 and within two years attached a junior program to its sponsorship.
Woods marveled at the poise of a 12-year-old junior who played a par 3 with him in a pro-am five years ago. The boy's name was Guan Tianlang, and two years later he won the Asia Pacific Amateur and then made the cut in the Masters. Adam Scott last year played with an 11-year-old girl who was so impressive that Scott figured she was a lock for the LPGA Tour if she did nothing else but continue to play.
Li was at the HSBC Champions last year, closed with a 67 and tied for 35th with Spieth and Jimmy Walker.
"If anyone wants to see just how far golf in China has come over the last decade, then look at the leaderboard," said Giles Morgan, global head of sponsorship and events at HSBC. "It's an incredible story. Haotong is one of our own. Our vision was to have a player from the program finish in the top 20 in the World Golf Championships within a decade. And there is every chance that will happen tomorrow — or even better."
Li played the PGA Tour China series last year and finished among the top five to earn his card on the Web.com Tour. He challenged for a PGA Tour midway through the season until fading to finish No. 49 on the money list, at least securing Web.com status for next year.
"I started getting used to the intensity because of the way I played on the Web.com," he said. "The challenge and the competition was so intense that sometimes I felt like I cannot breathe properly. But every week, I want to do better."
Kisner is making his first trip to China, and he joked earlier in the week that the tone of the cheer is different from what he hears on the PGA Tour. But there was no mistaking who the cheers were for in the group ahead of him as Li kept making birdies.
"I haven't met him, but I have a friend of ours from the Web.com Tour that told me he's a great kid," Kisner said. "I don't know anything about him. But he seemed to be playing great. I'm sure he's excited to play in his home country and looking forward to it."