China’s Li Haotong ready for big breakthrough as he targets world-class field at WGC-HSBC Champions

The mainland star is confident of making his mark at ‘Asia’s major’ after winning on the European Tour this year

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 26 October, 2016, 11:39pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 27 October, 2016, 12:04pm

Chinese golf sensation Li Haotong flirted with a seismic shock in Shanghai a year ago after going into the final round of “Asia’s major” just two shots off the lead.

A year on and the 21-year-old’s back at the WGC-HSBC Champions on familiar turf at Sheshan International Golf Club – but this time as a winner, with a stunning maiden European Tour victory under his belt.

Li comes into the US$9.5 million World Golf Championships event with a realistic aim to do something that would have been unthinkable a few years ago – win one of golf’s biggest events for China.

“I feel that if I can play in my own style, I will be able to win,” Li said.

Li kept that winning feeling with the US$250,000 first prize at the World Celebrity Pro-Am at Mission Hills on China’s Hainan Island on Sunday.

“All that counts is the momentum and the performance that I put in on the weekend,” Li added.

“It’s going to be challenging, but I’m looking forward to it.”

He finished tied seventh a year ago on the same score as the then world number one Jordan Spieth, of the United States.

But Li has no illusions as to the size of the task if he wants to finish higher this week in a stellar field that contains 40 of the world’s top 50 players, and eight of the top 10.

“The difficulty level to win a WGC-HSBC Champions is basically equal to all the four majors,” he said at Sheshan.

Laid-back Li proved why he was regarded as a future Chinese superstar with a dramatic win in May at the China Open in Beijing.

He shot an eight-under par final-round 64 to overhaul Chile’s seasoned pro Felipe Aguilar and win by three strokes, becoming only the second Chinese player to triumph in a European Tour event on home soil.

It was all the more special as the China Open was where Li made his professional tournament debut, as a 15-year-old amateur back in 2011.

Li’s runner-up spot in the European Tour’s 2015 Shenzhen International, where he outshone double Masters champion Bubba Watson, first gave notice that Li can thrive in the company of the game’s global stars, including a resurgent Rory McIlroy who is looking to end 2016 in style.

Watch: Li Haotong takes victory at 2016 Volvo China Open

But the Northern Irishman’s illustrious name is missing from a WGC-HSBC Champions roll of honour featuring Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Martin Kaymer and Watson.

Victory this week in front of his adoring home galleries would be fitting as 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 10 years old, and he honed his game by participating in its junior golf programme and watching the likes of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson at Sheshan.

“I see a lot of good friends coming to support me this year,” added Li.

“My hero will always be Tiger Woods, because no one can be like him. For me, he’s just a superhero. Like for 10 years on top he never missed a cut and always tried to win. Actually he won a lot.

“I just try to catch up with him.”