Show us someone who saw this coming from Haotong Li, and we’ll show you a liar. Heck, even the man himself didn’t believe this was in the cards.
“I didn’t even think I could play like this this week,” Li said. “Especially, like you said, had no confidence.”
Li, the 25-year-old from China ranked 114th in the world, shot a bogey-free 65 on Friday at TPC Harding Park to post an eight-under 132 total, good for a three-shot lead when he signed his card and a two-stroke edge over six players – including Australia’s Jason Day – when play concluded. Out of nowhere, he became the first Chinese man to lead at the end of a round in a men’s Major championship.
Li birdied five of his first 10 holes, then grinded out eight straight pars on the back nine to equal the second-lowest round of the week. And he did it while hitting just four fairways, matching the lowest score in the past 20 years in PGA Championship history from anybody hitting four or fewer fairways.
That’s a hugely impressive round under any circumstances. But Li’s recent results push it into hard-to-believe territory. He has played just two tournaments since the COVID-19 pandemic, missing the cut at last month’s Memorial and finishing T-75 in a 78-man field last week at the WGC–FedEx St Jude Invitational. He has no top 10s on a Major tour since April 2019.
So, naturally, he opened with 67 in the tougher afternoon conditions on Thursday and followed it up with a fantastic round on Friday.
What, then accounts for the turnaround?
“Nothing, really. Just try to play golf.”
Golf fans will remember Li for his performance at the 2017 Open Championship, where he shot 63 on Sunday to finish third as a 21-year-old. A two-time winner on the European Tour, Li has been as high as 32rd on the world ranking and played his way onto last year’s Presidents Cup team, though went 0-2 at Royal Melbourne and was generally considered to be the weakest player on either squad.
Li is, however, not without humour. He said he was “doing nothing” during the COVID-19 break, then told ESPN he gained seven kilograms during it. “Just out here to have fun,” he said.
Earlier this year, in Dubai, he showed up to the tournament with “HAOTONG IS THE MOST HANDSOME MAN IN CHINA” stamped on his wedges.
The odds say the next two days won’t be a stress-free as his first two, when he made just one bogey in the first 36 holes. So, did that sparkling play alter his hopes for the week?
“I’ve got no expectation, actually.”
Meanwhile, if you only looked at his score from round two, you’d say Day played fine. He shot a one-under 69, good enough to remain in contention, two behind Li, but not quite good enough to take control of the championship. Maybe he’ll be a factor on the weekend. Who knows.
However, a closer look at the stats would tell you that this man is absolutely locked in. Through two rounds Day ranks first in the field in strokes-gained: approach, having gained more than three strokes with his irons on both days. The biggest thing holding him back during this recent “slump”, by his standards, was shoddy iron play. So far, he’s looked like the J-Day of old coming into these greens. Tee-to-green, he also ranks second in strokes-gained.
Here’s the shocking part: he’s 51st in the field in strokes-gained: putting and 92nd (!!) in strokes-gained: around-the-green. When he’s at his best, there are few golfers on the planet better than him in those two areas, and somehow he’s six-under and just two off the lead in a Major without his best stuff on and around the putting surface. If his iron play remains this good over the next two days, all he needs to do is marginally improve in those two very key areas, and he will 100 percent be in this thing until the very end. Of course, his body needs to hold up as well, but apparently that is not an issue.
“Physically, I feel great,” Day said on Friday evening. “I’m always trying to stay disciplined with my exercises and soft tissue work, and then overall, I feel good. So when I first came out, I struggled to walk around a golf course and play golf. You know, it hurt to walk. But now I feel great and I feel fine.
“I’m to the point now where I’m nitpicking my round and before I really wasn’t. Before I was just happy to get inside the cut, you know, and get on to the weekend, and sometimes you need those weeks to just make it and get some confidence. Certainly have gained a lot of confidence over the past three times I’ve played, and you know, I’m just going to try and tidy up the putting for this weekend hopefully and hit it a little better off the tee.”
So, to recap: he feels good physically, he’s hitting his irons like the Day of 2015 and 2018, and his putter and his short game can only get better the rest of the week.