Haotong Li is surprise PGA Championship leader after scorching round

SAN FRANCISCO — Haotong Li is known for a few things.

Being in contention at major championships isn’t one of them.

This despite the fact that the 25-year-old Chinese golfer scorched TPC Harding Park in Friday’s second round of the PGA Championship to take a one-shot lead into the weekend.

Li followed his opening-round 67 with a 5-under-par 65 on Friday and is the first player from China ever to lead a major championship after any round.

He’ll take a two-shot lead into the weekend over Brooks Koepka, Tommy Fleetwood, Jason Day, Justin Rose, Daniel Berger and surprising 35-year-old Frenchman Mike Lorenzo-Vera (all 6-under). Paul Casey, Brendon Todd and Cameron Champ are all 5-under.

Li’s sudden run up the leaderboard made little sense considering his form entering this week.

He hasn’t had a top-10 finish in any of the eight tournaments he’s played around the world this year. He, too, missed the cut at the Memorial and finished tied for 75th out of 78 players in last week’s WGC-FedEx St. Jude Classic.

“I didn’t even [think] I could play like this this week, especially [when I] got no confidence,’’ Li said. “Probably it helped me clear my mind a little bit this week. I’ve got no expectation actually, because [the] last few months [I] stay at home doing nothing. I just want to go out here have fun.’’

Haotong Li
Haotong LiGetty Images

Eight-under par through two rounds in the first major championship being contested in 13 months is a good way to have fun.

It, too, is far removed from his nightmarish experience at the 2019 Presidents Cup matches in Australia, where Li was considered not only the weakest link of the international team but the goat in a 16-14 loss to the Americans.

Li put off captain Ernie Els and his international teammates by not taking the Presidents Cup seriously, according to some insiders, on a team that seemed as bonded as any in years for the internationals.

Li didn’t even bring his regular caddie to the event, instead opting for a trainer friend of his who’d never caddied before. When Els benched him for the first two days of the competition, according to an international insider, Li asked Els if he could go sightseeing instead of showing up to support his teammates.

The entire thing was a mess for Li, who went 0-2 in his matches and lost the respect of some peers along the way.

There’s irony in Li being accused of not taking the Presidents Cup seriously, because on Friday afternoon some six hours after his round ended, he was the lone person on the driving range still beating balls.

Li called the Presidents Cup experience “very tough on me … because I didn’t play until Saturday. Kind of quite late, so not quite in the Presidents Cup that way actually.’’

If Li wins the PGA, he’d become the first player from China to win a major championship.

“I haven’t played that much with him, but he’s got all the weapons in the bag,’’ said Adam Scott, who was on that Presidents Cup team with Li. “I guess I’d call it erratic, but he’s got all the tools.’’

Li showed those tools with his third-place finish at the 2017 British Open, where he shot a final-round 63. It was the highest finish in a major by a player from China.

“He’s got the arsenal to take it low and play, but we don’t see that kind of consistency out of him, and that probably matches his personality a little bit,’’ Scott said. “He’s young, though, and that’s kind of golf he plays. He plays pretty much all guns blazing, and when it comes off, it’s really good.’’

Another thing Li is known for is being sponsored by WeChat, the Chinese social media company that President Trump has threatened to ban in the United States.

After his round, Li, who wears the WeChat logo on his cap, wasn’t interested in talking about that topic. When asked if he was aware of Trump’s proposed ban, Li said, “I don’t know … who knows?’’

Li, of course, would rather be known as a major champion by the time the sun sets on San Francisco Sunday than for the logo on his hat.

On Friday, he took advantage of an early tee time in weather warmer than it’s been this week and with calm winds. He birdied three of first five holes to catapult himself into the lead and never looked back.

“Still got two rounds left,’’ Li said. “Long way to go. Just want to play my best. If it happens, it happens.’’

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