Li Haotong’s 63 at The Open ‘is no surprise’ as China starts to make global strides
The 21-year-old is among tens of thousands who are products of a programme to produce a future Chinese major winner
Li Haotong’s closing round of 63 at the British Open at Royal Birkdale last week set tongues wagging, including that of his playing partner Ernie Els – a two-time Open winner – and a number of commentators.
Among them was the Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee, a former pro who was salivating as Li made a charge on the final day and at one time looked like he might even win the title as eventual champion Jordan Spieth and Matt Kuchar went into a temporary slump.
Chamblee said at the time a Li victory “would change golf”.
Li didn’t win, finishing third, but for many who have followed his career, and that of other mainland hopefuls, Li’s performance came as no surprise.
Indeed, for them, China is already starting to change the world of golf.
The 21-year-old is a graduate of the China Golf Association-HSBC Junior Golf Programme that has already created 80,000 young golfers from around the mainland, with Li joining the initiative in 2007.
“Haotong’s performance at The Open is testament to the incredible growth of golf in China.,” said HSBC global head of sponsorship Giles Morgan.
“There is much talk around the potential of Chinese golf but to achieve that on the final day of the world’s oldest major is very special and suggests that Chinese golf is now a permanent fixture at the top table of world golf.
“From our point of view, it’s a compelling proof point for the investment we have made in Chinese youth golf over the last decade. Haotong was first inspired in the game as a youngster by attending our flagship HSBC Champions tournament in Shanghai and is a graduate of the programme, a development programme we started 10 years ago with the ambition of supporting future Chinese champions.
“None of this is a surprise. Back in 2012 we commissioned a report looking into the future of the sport called ‘Golf’s 2020 Vision’ which predicted a major Asian presence in the world’s Top 10 by the start of the next decade.
“Last year we revisited the report when we published ‘State of Play 2020’ which highlighted the progress made in the region since the original report. In it European Tour commissioner Keith Pelley told us he thinks China can ‘go as far in the game as it wants to’.”
Li hopes his performance at The Open will pave the way for China’s first men’s major winner.
“[It’s] been an incredible for myself and Chinese golf on the whole,” said Li. “Since first becoming involved in golf through the programme, I’ve dreamt of days like these.
“I hope my performance can inspire many young Chinese golfers to follow in my footsteps and that one day soon we will see male Chinese golfers emulate the success of [women’s golfer] Feng Shanshan to win at a major championship.
“It wouldn’t have been possible to get where I have without support from my team and supporters of the game in China such as HSBC.”
In 2016, Li became the youngest winner of the China Open on the European Tour, aged 20, when an inspired final round of 64, eight under par, saw him win by three.
As reward for finishing third at The Open, Li will be awarded a place at The Masters next year. Rising stars Guan Tianlang and Cheng Jin – products of the same programme as Li – have already had the chance to play at Augusta with Guan making the in 2013 as a 14-year-old.
Li’s 63 at Royal Birkdale came soon after Branden Grace hit a record 62 – the lowest round ever at The Open. At one point, Spieth and Kuchar were struggling, prompting Li – who had finished his round – to take to the practice green in case of a play-off.
Spieth made an astonishing recovery to capture his third major but the subplot was Li’s surge up the leaderboard that marks him out as a potential major winner for the future.
“Clearly, the performance of Haotong Li is only going to inspire many more youngsters to take up the game. We all saw the impact Li Na had on tennis in China and Feng Shanshan’s bronze medal performance at Rio 2016 introduced the sport to a whole new audience,” said Morgan.
“But this could open the floodgates – to shoot the joint lowest final-round score in major history at the age of 21 is a huge achievement which can absolutely inspire a generation to follow in his footsteps.
“The framework is in place, the talent is certainly there and we look forward to seeing how the next chapter in China’s golfing success story unfolds in the coming months and years.”