News & Opinion

Li shows China a world of possibilities

BELEK, Turkey – No one expresses shock at a missed putt quite like Haotong Li. The 23-year-old budding star missed two short putts Sunday – tugging the first from about 5 feet for par at the end of regulation and then, after getting a reprieve, taking three putts from 10 feet, the comebacker from no more than 3 feet – to hand the Turkish Airlines Open to Justin Rose (scores).

Li did the classic knee bend, but it was his look of utter disbelief that will remain highlight-reel worthy for the agony of defeat.

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A missed 3-footer on the first playoff hole in the Turkish Airlines Open brings Haotong Li to his knees.

Let's hope that his putter receives a better fate than the time when Li broke his short stick over a knee and gave it a watery grave at the 11th green at Le Golf National during the 2017 French Open. His mother waded into the muddy water hazard to retrieve it (video).

It's always an awkward ending to a playoff when a player misses the type of putt that weekend hackers typically rake. Li was a man of few words when he made his required media stops, saying, “It's a tough day for me. I think I played well the whole week, but didn't hole a few putts on the last, and that was it."

The more telling moment came as he walked to the scoring area at Regnum Carya Golf and Spa Resort and uttered a litany of choice words that needed no translation. There will be better days for Li, who entered the week at No. 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking. He has the potential to do great things for golf, especially in his native China.

Golf was banned in China by Mao Zedong in 1949 after he came to power, disparaging the sport as the game of millionaires, and the country's existing courses were plowed under. The first modern course design in China, Chung Shan Hot Springs in Zhongshan, was designed by Arnold Palmer and opened in 1984. In one of his final acts as PGA Tour commissioner, Deane Beman helped deliver China’s first international tournament, the 1995 World Cup at Mission Hills in Dongguan.

Since then, the relationship between golf and China has fallen into the category of "it's complicated." Course construction boomed as golf became a popular pastime of the upper class. But in recent years, Communist Party leaders have banned its members from playing golf and halted the construction of several courses and ordered others plowed under.

Still, Chinese golfers have found ways to prominence, none more so than Shanshan Feng, the first player from China to become a member of the LPGA. Feng has won a major title, an Olympic bronze medal in 2016 and reached world No. 1.

Li has the potential to join her as an inspiration to a generation of new golfers in his homeland. He grew up participating in a junior-golf program instituted by HSBC in 2007 in collaboration with its sponsorship of the HSBC Champions at Sheshan International, where he watched the likes of Tiger Woods and others compete over the years.

Li turned pro in 2012, and with little more than raw promise won three times on PGA Tour China in 2014 and topped the money list.

"That changed my life, actually," Li said at the 2015 WGC HSBC Champions. "If they don't have PGA Tour China, I wouldn't have the chance to play the Web.com Tour because Web.com Tour Q-School is so tough. I'm very thankful for China Golf Association and PGA Tour China because they gave me a chance."

When he earned a promotion to the Web.com Tour in 2015, Li didn't know a word of English. (He speaks the language very well now.) The biggest adjustment to playing in the U.S.?

“America bread,” Li said at the Genesis Open earlier this year. “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.”

Li also had the chance to meet Woods when he played in L.A., and raved about the experience like a teeny-bopper meeting one of the Beatles.

"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."

Li first made a mark on the world stage when he won the 2016 Volvo China Open on the European Tour. Last year, he fired a 63 in the final round of the British Open at Royal Birkdale to finish third and earn a berth in the Masters. This year, he proved that he can play with the world’s best golfers, making four birdies over the final six holes to race past Rory McIlroy and capture the Dubai Desert Classic. Count Rose among those who were impressed with the way Li battled back after squandering a three-stroke overnight lead in Turkey.

"He kept his humor with him, which is what I like," Rose said. “He got frustrated at No. 11, but I like that, too. He's got the fire and the passion, but he hung in there."

Li is the first Chinese male golfer to break into the top 50 – he rose as high as 32nd after winning in Dubai in January – but he likely won't be the last. Zecheng "Marty" Dou, 21, became the first native Chinese to earn a PGA Tour card, in 2017, after winning a Web.com Tour event. Xinjun Zhang, 28, qualified for the PGA Tour with a strong finish on the Web.com Tour Finals the same year. And just a few weeks ago, the China Golf Association announced the hiring of Sean Foley, who coaches Rose and other PGA Tour players, to work with an initial group of four golfers – Mohan Du, Wenbo Liu, Yanwei Liu and Lei Ye – as the focus of an effort to prepare its golfers for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

So, the Turkish Airlines Open left Li in a fit of rage, but bigger days are coming for this star in the making with a big laugh and an infectious smile. And it could have huge implications for all of golf.

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf.com and The New York Times. He is the winner of the National Sports Media Association's "Golf Article of 2017," and the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak