Li Haotong aiming for world’s top 50 after breakthrough season

China’s most promising player wants to rise higher in the rankings after an encouraging and extraordinary year on his maiden European Tour

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 November, 2016, 4:29pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 November, 2016, 11:41pm

After a stellar rookie season on the PGA European Tour, Li Haotong now has his sights set firmly on a place in the world’s top 50.

Li wrapped up his maiden European Tour season in Dubai last week, and this week was in Australia to compete in his fifth straight tournament, bringing to a conclusion a year he could have only dreamed of 12 months ago.

The 21-year-old from Hunan finished the year in 23rd position on the Race to Dubai, the highest ranking ever by a mainland Chinese player, and with earnings of US$1,445,000. Li narrowly missed out on the Rookie of the Year title, which went to Korea’s Wang Jeunghun, in 16th place.

Rising into the world top 50, from his current position of 130, will certainly be a challenge, but it will open up a world of opportunities and untold riches.

“My next goal is to reach the top 50 in the world so that I can play in all of the majors and World Golf Championship events,” Li said. “I might even get there next year.”

Li came to the attention of the wider golfing world in early 2015 when he held a two-shot lead after 17 holes on the final day of the Shenzhen International, only to see Thailand’s Kiradech Aphibarnrat eagle the penultimate hole and take the title after a play-off with Li.

In November last year Li was front and centre on worldwide TV screens when after three rounds of the US$8.5 million HSBC Champions in Shanghai, he stood at 15 under par, one shot off the lead with one round to play.

A level par final round of 72 saw Li finish tied seventh alongside Matthew Fitzpatrick, Patrick Reed and Jordan Spieth, his playing partner in the final round.

Li was riding a wave of confidence when he arrived at Topwin Golf and Country Club in Beijing to compete in the Volvo China Open in April this year, and had just one goal in mind, to win.

“Competing against the world’s best players in Shanghai gave me a lot of confidence going into Beijing,” Li said. “I knew then that I could play with these guys every week, and I’m there to win.

“The China Open is obviously special for me, as it’s my national open, but it was also the first professional event I played in as an amateur.

“After my victory in Beijing I played a lot of really good golf and my world ranking improved.”

Li jumped 106 places on the official world golf rankings after his record final round 64 in Beijing earned him a three-shot victory, and after he finished tied for 27th in the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth at the end of May he stood at 124.

“Since turning pro my aim has been to compete with the best players in the world,” Li said. “I gained a lot of confidence from my five wins on the China Tour and it made me realise that I could play to a much higher level.

“If I can keep playing at the level I am now I’m sure I will make the top 50.”

Li’s recent elevation to the European Tour has been many years in the making, given that he turned pro in 2012 at the age of 17.

In 2014 Li won three times on the PGA Tour China to earn playing rights to the 2015 Tour.

“I’m doing the same things now that I did on the China Tour, except that I’m playing with people such as Sergio Garcia and Jordan Spieth,” Li added.

Li revealed he has been working with swing coach Jamie Gough for the past few months.

“Jamie’s help and guidance have made a significant difference to my game,” Li said. “I’ve worked with him since the Scottish Open and he’s taught me a lot; not just about the golf swing but how to deal with things mentally and how to enjoy life on the road. It feels like he’s my whole life coach.”

South African Gough, who also coaches Ryder Cup star Andy Sullivan, said that Li is “super talented.”

Li’s recent run of good form was preceded by a disappointing tied 63rd place in the HSBC in Shanghai at the end of last month.

“I was expecting too much from myself at Sheshan,” Li said. “I had lots of family and friends and other people there to support me, and it just added to the pressure of the situation.

“In Turkey I was really relaxed – it was like a vacation compared to Shanghai, so I was able to relax and enjoy it. I drove the ball really well and made only six bogeys the whole week.”

Li’s 17-under second-place finish in Turkey yielded his biggest pay cheque to date, US$592,000.

“I’m sure I can win a major one day and I think I’m there right now,” Li added. “I’m playing in top class fields every week so I’ll have a lot of chances, and I’m still 21.

“Maybe it will happen next year, as being in the top 30 on the European Tour I will get my first start in the Open Championship.”

Will Davidson has been caddying for Li for more than a year and has nothing but praise for his young employer.

“This guy is an amazing talent, and he’s only 21,” said Davidson, who has caddied for several leading US PGA Tour players including Smiley Kaufman. “He can go as far as he wants to go in this game because he is so talented.

“He gets down on himself when he hits a bad shot and it takes him one or two holes to recover, but he’s dealing with it better every week.”