SAN FRANCISCO — Still young, often inconsistent, forever fearless, Haotong Li is capable of just about anything on a big stage in golf. He was at his best Friday in the PGA Championship.
Three years after his 63 in the final round of the British Open, Li hit only four fairways at Harding Park and still managed a 5-under 65 that made him the first Chinese player to have the lead after any round at any major.
The 25-year-old Li capped a bogey-free round with his eighth start par and was at 8-under 132, two shots ahead of a big group that include — who else? — Brooks Koepka, the two-time defending champion.
Much farther back was Tiger Woods, who found more fairways but struggled on the greens, ranking 131st in the key putting statistic against the 156-man field. He flirted with the cut line until a birdie on the 16th kept him safe, and his 72 put him eight shots behind.
Woods wasn’t alone in his struggles. Rory McIlroy ran off four straight birdies around the turn and gave nearly all of the away with a triple bogey on the 12th hole, three-putting from 7 feet once he finally got on the green. He had a 69 and was seven shots behind. Justin Thomas, the world’s No. 1 player, also had to rally to make the cut on the number.
And so on the public gem in San Francisco with a history of the biggest stars winning, the 36-hole leader is got his start on the PGA Tour-China Series and currently is No. 114 in the world.
Surprised? So was he.
Li was in China as the pandemic shut down golf. He returned three weeks ago and missed the cut, and then tied for 75th in a 78-man field at a World Golf Championship.
“I didn’t even (think) I could play like this ... got no confidence,” Li said. “Probably it helped me clear my mind a little bit.”
Getting as much attention was the logo on his hat — WeChat, the Chinese social media company and one of his biggest sponsors. Li was in the spotlight at Harding Park one day after President Donald Trump signed executive orders on a vague ban of WeChat and TikTok in 45 days.
Just as unclear was whether Li was aware of the development.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Who knows?”
Koepka was more worried about a tight hip that a nagging left knee, and he had a trainer come out to stretch and twist him three times along the back nine. It loosened him up enough for Koepka to post a 68. It’s the fifth time in his last eight majors that he has gone into the weekend within three shots of the lead.
“I felt like I probably could be 10 (under) right now,” he said. “Hit a lot of good putts, just didn’t go in. ... But driving it pretty well. Iron play, I’m pretty pleased with. You know, I like where I’m at.”
Also at 6-under 134 were former PGA champion Jason Day (69), former U.S. Open champion Justin Rose (68), Tommy Fleetwood (64), Daniel Berger (67) and Mike Lorenzo-Vera of France, who closed with a 15-foot bogey putt for a 68.
Two dozen players were separated by five shots at the halfway point.
Li is a two-time winner on the European Tour, most recently in 2018 at the Dubai Desert Classic when he rallied down the stretch to beat McIlroy by one shot.
He was sensational at Royal Birkdale in 2017 — only five other players have 63 in the final round of a major. But he had a terrible week in his Presidents Cup debut at Royal Melbourne in December. When he first came to America, he made fast friends on the developmental tours with his constant laughter, engaging personality and aggressive play.
“He’s got the arsenal to take it low,” said Adam Scott, his teammate at Royal Melbourne. “But we don’t see that kind of consistency out of him, and that probably matches his personality a little bit. He’s young, though, and that’s the kind of golf he plays. He plays pretty much all guns blazing, and when it comes off, it’s really good.”
And when it doesn’t? He beat Koepka in the Match Play last year and reached the round of 16. But that was his last top 10 in America. And then there was the Presidents Cup.
Li brought his trainer to be his caddie, and the caddie got lost on the course during a practice round, gave up and headed for the clubhouse. Instead of finding him, Li played the rest of the round out of another player’s bag. International captain Ernie Els wound up benching him for two days, playing Li only when he had to. Li lost both matches he played.
“It’s been very tough on me, the Presidents Cup, because I didn’t play until Saturday,” Li said. “So not quite in the Presidents that way, actually. But anyways, good experience.”
Another one awaits.
Li was seen at the practice range and putting green much of the afternoon, although Golf Channel reported he had gone to rental home for lunch and a nap. True, there’s not much to do during health protocols in place for the pandemic. And he’s young enough that energy shouldn’t be a problem.
But it sets up Saturday as a critical day, for Li and for Koepka, for Woods and Dustin Johnson, for everyone chasing a major championship trophy that hasn’t been awarded since the British Open a year ago in July.
– Doug Ferguson is a writer for the Associated Press