SAN FRANCISCO — Haotong Li is much like the weather around Harding Park: mercurial and prone to bluster. He doesn’t lack for confidence — he has carried a wedge stamped with HAOTONG IS THE MOST HANDSOME MAN IN CHINA — and is known in Tour circles for having a revolving door of caddies. Li, 25, was the talk of the 2019 Presidents Cup, the brightest spotlight under which he has competed, until now, given he holds the 36-hole lead at the 102nd PGA Championship.
Capt. Ernie Els benched Li for the first two days at Royal Melbourne and then, when Els reluctantly called Li’s number, he shot a 41 on the front nine during Saturday morning foursomes. Li was then dispatched by Dustin Johnson in singles, the moment when the U.S. team tied up the Cup on the way to a comeback victory. Later that day, Li had heads shaking on social media when he was spotted scrolling on his cell phone during Els’s emotional speech at the closing ceremonies.
There is no denying Li’s talent. In 2017, he roared home in 63 to nearly steal the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale. At the tender age of 25 he has two European Tour victories, including the 2016 China Open, which made him a larger-than-life figure in his home country. “He’s like a god over there,” says Els, partially explaining the stamping on Li’s wedge. Another revealing moment came at the 2017 French Open, when Li chucked his broken putter into a pond on the 11th hole and his mother, not knowing it was damaged, waded into the murky water to retrieve it.
Now, Li is on the verge a big-time breakthrough, having shot a bogeyless 65 on Friday (missing 10 of 14 fairways!) to roar to the top of the leaderboard at the PGA Championship. And don’t think he doesn’t know it: At 5:30 p.m. local time, more than five hours after he’d finished his second round, Li was still entrenched on the range, banging ball after ball into the cool evening air. In his last six rounds on Tour, Li posted a score better than 73 only once, falling all the way to 114th in the World Ranking. But the volatility in his game is part of Li’s secret.
“He’s got all the weapons in the bag,” says Adam Scott, a Presidents Cup teammate. “You know, I guess I’d call it erratic, but he’s got all the tools, as you see through two rounds here. He’s got the arsenal to take it low but we don’t see that kind of consistency out of him, and that probably matches his personality a little bit. He’s young, and that’s kind of golf he plays. He plays pretty much all guns blazing, and when it comes off, it’s really good.”
It starts with Li’s powerful, photogenic swing. At the top he is a dead-ringer for another lanky ball-basher, DJ, and Brandel Chamblee fleshed out the similarities on his Twitter feed: “High hands, shut face, head turns to the right, right heel comes up early in the downswing and pushes hard, left foot inner ankle high as he rotates and massively extends. World class powerful move.” Johnson has been unaware of the comparisons. “That’s news to me,” he said on Friday at Harding Park, but then he began to warm to the thought. “He’s got a nice move and he pounds it pretty good. He’s a good player and seems like a nice guy, but it’s hard to get to know him because of the language barrier.”
Indeed, Li offered little in his post-round press conference. He is sponsored by WeChat, a wildly popular social media app in China, which President Trump just targeted with an executive order, vowing to shut down access to it in the U.S. in 45 days. Asked about the budding controversy, Li said, “I don’t know. Who knows?” What has clicked for him this week? “Nothing really,” Li said. “Just try to play golf.” How will he handle the magnitude of the moment this weekend at Harding? “Well, I don’t even know what I’m going to do. Just play golf, mate.”
But Els, in a phone interview on Friday, said Li had no trouble communicating at the Presidents Cup. “One thing I can tell you is he’s most honest kid you will ever meet,” he said. “Whatever comes into head comes out of his mouth. He was a bolt of lightning in the team room. I had to talk to him and ask him to tone it down a little bit.” Els cited a practice round in which Li was paired with C.T. Pan, playing alternate shot. “There were a couple of times when C.T. hit maybe not his best shot and Haotong would say, ‘That was a sh*t shot. That was terrible.’ I laughed at it, but some of the guys perceived it differently.”
Li arrived in Royal Melbourne sixth in the International Team points standings; as for why he used him so sparingly, Els said, “He never got comfortable or found his game.” Li had fired his caddie the week before and was flummoxed by the subtle challenges of the host course. Yet his captain remains sold on Li’s potential. “I truly believe he can be top 10 in the world, top 5 if things go his way,” Els says. “He has that much talent. He pushes the pedal a little hard when he doesn’t have to, but that’s part of his confidence, which I love. When he’s feeling up, he’s afraid of nobody.”
Back at Royal Melbourne, Li became engaged in a good-natured trash-talking contest with Samantha Els, the captain’s daughter, who plays rugby at Stanford. Samantha said she could squat more pounds than Li, who is known for his maniacal workouts. Next thing you know, Li was in the gym, straining under a bar loaded with metal plates. Was this the best way to prepare for the Presidents Cup? “Probably not,” Els said with a laugh, “but you have to love the kid’s fight.”