image

PGA Tour

Li Haotong ready for ‘big’ reaction in China after beating Rory McIlroy to claim Dubai Desert Classic

The 22-year-old displays nerves of steel to overhaul his playing partner and ensure that he will become China’s first-ever top-50 player

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 January, 2018, 11:12am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 January, 2018, 9:55pm

Chinese youngster Li Haotong is braced for a “big” reaction from his fans back home, after stunning Rory McIlroy in a thrilling back-nine battle to win the Dubai Desert Classic on Sunday.

The 22-year-old trailed four-time major winner McIlroy by two shots with eight holes remaining, but displayed nerves of steel to overhaul his playing partner and ensure that he will become China’s first-ever top-50 player when the world rankings are released on Monday.

When asked what the reaction would be like in China, Li, who led by one shot overnight, laughed and said: “It’s going to be big.

“Last night, my phone was like boom, exploding, seriously, (there were) so many messages, saying ‘oh, Haotong’, on the website or whatever.”

Li, who will now have his sights set firmly on April’s Masters after qualifying with his impressive third-placed finish at last year’s British Open, played the final six holes in four-under par.

A long birdie putt from the fringe on the 15th green was the key as he drew level with former world number one McIlroy, who bogeyed the following hole.

“On the 15th green, for some reason, I just think it felt so good down there,” he said.

“Felt so comfortable. And also got lucky (to) make that putt. I think it was the most important putt out there.”

Li put in a string of strong performances at the recent EurAsia Cup in Malaysia, where Asia fell narrowly short of causing a big upset against a strong Europe outfit led by Ryder Cup captain Thomas Bjorn.

Asia skipper Arjun Atwal said after that tournament that Li “has balls of steel”, but the affable Chinese was quick to play down his inner resolve on Sunday.

“Well, everyone has a couple of balls. You can’t complain about that.”

China’s emerging star Li Haotong beats McIlroy to Dubai title

His second European Tour title after a maiden win on home soil in the 2016 China Open makes Li one of the leading Asian players in the game – he is the first from the continent to win the Dubai Desert Classic.

Li is known for cracking jokes on the fairways, but said he kept quiet during his duel with McIlroy.

“Well, I think when you are into the back nine, like Sunday back nine, when Rory has just a one-shot lead, he won’t joke with you,” he smiled.

This was another promising, but ultimately disappointing, week for McIlroy as the 28-year-old looks to rediscover his best form after failing to win last year.

The Northern Irishman challenged in Abu Dhabi in his first tournament of the season last week before finishing tied-third behind Tommy Fleetwood, and was left frustrated after throwing away his two-shot lead at the Emirates Golf Club on Sunday.

Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson battling to get back to glory days on PGA Tour

“Yeah, (I’m) pissed off,” he said.

“If someone had told me at the start of the year you’d finish third and second your first two events, I’d say, yeah, I’d take that.

“But being in the positions I’ve been in and having two close calls the first couple of weeks of the year, it’s a little difficult.

“I think I wouldn’t (take it) – the competitor in me is very disappointed right now.”

McIlroy will be desperate to get a victory under his belt before his latest tilt at completing the career clean sweep of major titles at the Masters, but he still hasn’t won since the 2016 PGA Tour Championship.

He will have Li to contend with too at Augusta and the Chinese rising star may have fate on his side – the last two winners of the Dubai Desert Classic (Danny Willett and Sergio Garcia) have gone on to claim the green jacket.