SAN FRANCISCO – Haotong Li is on history’s doorstep.
On a crisp, sun-drenched Friday morning at TPC Harding Park, Li turned in an impressive 5-under-par 65 to move to the top of the leaderboard in the 102nd edition of the PGA Championship.
Through 36 holes, Li is at 8 under and was two clear of his nearest pursuer as the morning wave of players began to finish. His play through two rounds – he’s made just one bogey – has put himself in position to become the first man from China to win a major championship.
But Li feels no weight on his shoulders with history beckoning.
“Well, I’ve got no expectation actually, because you know, last few months, stay at home doing nothing. I just want to out here, have fun,” Li said. “Still got two rounds left. Long way to go. Just want to play my best. If it happens, it happens.”
Not much has happened for Li of late. He hasn’t had a top-10 since he finished second in the China Tour Championship in December. He’s missed four of eight cuts since then and beat only two players when finishing in a tie for 75th in last week’s World Golf Championships-FedEx St. Jude Invitational.
During this stretch he spent the COVID-19 induced lockdown in China.
He has no idea what has turned his game around this week.
“Nothing really. Just try to play golf,” he said when asked about the keys for his success so far. “I didn’t even think I could play like this this week, especially, like you said, got no confidence.”
Li didn’t have much to say, either, when asked about one of his sponsors, WeChat, a messaging service owned by Tencent, facing a possible ban in the U.S. On Thursday, President Trump signed an executive order banning U.S. transactions with Chinese tech firms Tencent and ByteDance, which owns TikTok.
The ban will take effect in 45 days.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Who knows?”
Basically, his mind is on trying to keep having fun in the first major of the season. Li, 25, isn’t an unknown – he was ranked as high as No. 32 in the world before falling to No. 114 presently. He’s a two-time winner on the European Tour, including the 2018 Dubai Desert Classic when he held off Rory McIlroy by one.
He also closed with four birdies to shoot 63 to finish third in the 2017 British Open. The finish earned him a spot in the 2019 Masters.
“Wow,” he said when told of the Masters invite. “What a gift.”
“It’s a long time ago,” he said. “Definitely good to have that experience in my mind, and definitely will help to play the next two rounds. I think it’s my best golf so far, best moment, the last four holes in Birkdale.”
But he has no expectations for the next two days.
“I don’t even know what I’m going to do,” he said. “Just play golf, mate.”