China's Li Haotong on brink of global glory at WGC-HSBC Champions
The 20-year-old grew up with the HSBC Champions watching stars like Tiger Woods and Ernie Els compete at Sheshan International. Now he is one round away from his chance to win
Li Haotong at just 20 years old has a chance to do something on Sunday that just a few years ago would have been unthinkable – win one of golf’s biggest events for China.
Li is just one shot behind the leader Kevin Kisner in the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai after a six-under par 66 in the third round on Saturday took him to 15-under par – two shots ahead of Masters and US Open champion Jordan Spieth, who just happens to be about the best player on the planet right now.
He is likely to play with world No 8 Dustin Johnson in the final round on Sunday as they compete for the massive US$1.4 million winner’s cheque and the “Old Tom Morris” trophy – one of the most prestigious outside a major championship.
The Shanghai-based Li has had the HSBC Champions coursing through his veins from a young age.
The tournament was founded in 2005 when Li was just 10 years old and he participated in its junior golf programme, which enabled him to be inspired by watching legends such as Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy at Sheshan International Golf Club.
“This tournament is so big – it’s too big,” Li said smiling, as he tried to take in the enormity of what he was achieving in front of thousands of enraptured hometown fans.
“I know that the final day, a lot of people are going to be hitting a lot of birdies.
“But that's why I thought that my target, my goal of this tournament would be making the top 10, because making the top 10 will already be a highlight and a milestone for my short career.”
Li should not be surprised that he can compete with the world's best. In fact, he seems to be inspired all the more when he plays with the game’s global superstars.
In April this year, in the European Tour’s Shenzhen International in southern China, he teed up alongside world No 4 and double US Masters champion Bubba Watson for the first three rounds.
He did not on the fourth day because by then he had outplayed the big-hitting lefty and was leading the event.
Li eventually lost a play-off to Thailand's Kiradech Aphibarnrat. So could he get over the winning line this time?
“I don't think so,” he said, laughing. But if he plays as he did here on Saturday, he might just.
He reeled off four straight birdies to start his round and stayed composed throughout even with the intimidating figure of Spieth charging up the leaderboard with a best of the day nine-under 63.
Ten years ago when HSBC founded the Champions tournament there were fewer than 100 golf courses in this vast nation.
“If anyone wants to see just how far golf in China has come over the last decade, then look at the leaderboard,” Giles Morgan, HSBC global head of sponsorship and events, said.
“It's an incredible story. Li Haotong is one of our own. He graduated through the ranks of the HSBC China Junior Golf Programme.
“Just recently I said our dream was to have a Chinese player at the top of the leaderboard at the HSBC Champions here in China in five years – and now it has happened so soon.”
Li said he would go out on Sunday and just try to play his natural game and let fate take care of the rest.
“If it's destined for me to do something good, you cannot stop it,” Li said. “So what I will try to do is my best tomorrow and see how things go.”