China's Li Haotong adjusting to bigger stage

By Doug FergusonOctober 26, 2016, 2:52 pm

SHANGHAI – In one year, Li Haotong has gone from being a contender in the HSBC Champions to a superhero.

At least on the stage.

One tradition of this World Golf Championship, billed as ''Asia's major,'' is for the top stars to gather in downtown Shanghai for a photo opportunity showing off the culture. A year ago, the best players took part in a Chinese drum ceremony on a hotel rooftop in the Bund district. The theme this year was ''superheroes'' descending on Shanghai. Henrik Stenson was ''The Machine.'' Bubba Watson was ''The Magician.'' Dustin Johnson was ''The Heat.''

And tournament organizers also brought along the 21-year-old Li. He was ''The Force.''

Tall and wiry, rarely without that contagious smile, Li doesn't look the part. As for his exploits on the golf course, he's getting there.

''It's interesting that I've been named as 'The Force,''' Li said with a laugh. ''On the other hand, it's an honor to be the first Chinese player to be participating in the WGC-HSBC Champions opening ceremony. I wish to do better, keep doing better continuously, and hopefully build up the image of China golfers.''

He appears headed in that direction.


WGC-HSBC Champions: Articles, photos and videos


Li was one shot out of the lead going into the final round at Sheshan International last year before closing with a 72 to tie for seventh with Jordan Spieth, the highest finish ever by a Chinese player in a World Golf Championship or PGA Tour event.

He was playing on the Web.com Tour early last year when he came home and won the Volvo China Open on the European Tour, securing a two-year membership. That victory also was enough to qualify for the Olympics in Rio.

Li returned to the European Tour and posted a pair of top-20 finishes, moving him up to No. 42 in the Race to Dubai.

Asked about being in such elite company, Li raised his eyebrows and said, ''Elite company. What does this mean?'' And then he broke into laughter, as he so often does. He then explained that being in the company of such great players - Rickie Fowler and defending champion Russell Knox were on stage with him Tuesday night - was not going to be good enough for him to feel satisfied.

''Still a long way to go,'' he said. ''So I think I just try my best. I think just keep working hard and one day I will be there for sure. So let's see.''

It could be quite the test at Sheshan International. After a summer of extraordinary heat, the course was drenched with 5 inches of rain on the weekend, and then the pro-am was cut short Wednesday with another deluge. More rain is in the forecast Thursday.

The field is the strongest ever for the HSBC Champions with 40 of the top 50 in the world, including all four major champions for the first time since 2011.

Li practically grew up with this event, dating to when it was a European Tour stop when it began in 2005 through its transition to a WGC in 2009. He took part in the HSBC junior program and received an exemption at age 19. He closed with a 67 and tied Spieth and Jimmy Walker in 35th place.

''The difficulty level to win a WGC-HSBC Champions is basically equal to all the four majors because they all have the best lineup,'' Li said.

He used to live in Howey-in-the-Hills, a tiny town outside Orlando, Florida, but since has moved.

''Too crowded,'' he said with another laugh.

His sister lives in Rancho Cucamonga, so he stays with her when his schedule brings him to the U.S. He hopes to get a few sponsor exemptions on the PGA Tour this year and earn enough FedEx Cup points to at least have a shot at the Web.com Tour Finals, his best path to a PGA Tour card. He still is exempt on the European Tour.

''I think this is a good way to go,'' he said. ''So let's see.''

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McIlroy gets back on track

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 21, 2018, 3:10 pm

There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:

He is well ahead of schedule.

Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.

“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”

To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”

And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out. 

Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.

“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”

The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.

The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)

But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.

Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.

Everything in his life is lined up.

Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.

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Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 2:20 pm

Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.

Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.

There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.


Full-field scores from the Singapore Open


Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.

The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.

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Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.

Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.

It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.

While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.

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McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:08 pm

Rory McIlroy's trend of doing everything but hoist the trophy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is alive and well.

Making his first start since early October, McIlroy showed few signs of rust en route to a tie for third. Amid gusty winds, he closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the week at 18 under, four shots behind Tommy Fleetwood who rallied to win this event for the second consecutive year.

The result continues a remarkable trend for the Ulsterman, who has now finished third or better seven of the last eight years in Abu Dhabi - all while never winning the tournament. That stretch includes four runner-up finishes and now two straight T-3 results.


Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship


McIlroy is entering off a disappointing 2017 in which he was injured in his first start and missed two chunks of time while trying to regain his health. He has laid out an ambitious early-season schedule, one that will include a trip to Dubai next week and eight worldwide tournament starts before he heads to the Masters.

McIlroy started the final round one shot off the lead, and he remained in contention after two birdies over his first four holes. But a bogey on No. 6 slowed his momentum, and McIlroy wasn't able to make a back-nine birdie until the closing hole, at which point the title was out of reach.