Beijing, China: As he flew back to the United States to continue his bid for a spot on the PGA Tour, Li Haotong, Chinese number one and Nike athlete, had plenty of time to reflect on a satisfying two weeks on home soil.
Li, a OneAsia history-maker with his win at last year’s Nanshan China Masters, lost in a play-off to Thailand’s Kiradech Aphibarnrat at the Shenzhen International before finishing sixth at the Volvo China Open.
Those performances had the golf world sitting up and taking notice but the hugely talented 19-year-old is no overnight success story.
He has played on OneAsia since 2011 and says the experience gained on the circuit has been a huge factor in his blooming career – along with his tie-up with Nike Golf, a Full Business Member of the Asian Golf Industry Federation.
“At the beginning when I turned professional, my scores on OneAsia were not good but the first couple of seasons were good experiences for me as a young pro,” said Li.
“Playing tournaments not only in China, but also some tournaments abroad (helped me develop my game).”
A fresh-faced Li made his first appearance as a professional on OneAsia at the 2011 Australian PGA Championship, finishing joint 39th and winning a cheque for US$6,346.
He played five events on OneAsia in 2012, making just one cut, at the Thailand Open, before showing marked improvement in 2013 when he finished 58th on the Order of Merit thanks to weekend showings at three of his six tournaments.
The quantum leap from learning his trade to contending for titles came in 2014 when Li secured top-20 finishes at the Indonesia PGA Championship and GS Caltex Maekyung Open ahead of the Nanshan China Masters.
As a member of Team China, Li was keen to make an impression at what has become the home of Chinese golf with an academy and practice facilities for the national squad.
He did that with a four-stroke victory in windy conditions to become the youngest winner on OneAsia. “I think I am too young to win a Masters event,” joked Li at the time.
The triumph at the Nanshan China Masters proved a catalyst for Li’s rise up the world rankings with subsequent wins on PGA Tour China and a bright start on the Web.com Tour.
“Nanshan China Masters was an important victory for me,” said Li. On the heels of that win last October, Li lifted the final two events on the PGA Tour China to top the Order of Merit and win a card on the Web.com Tour, the main pathway to the PGA Tour.
In six events this year, he has shown maturity beyond his years by making five cuts and featuring in the final group at the Panama Claro Championship and the Chitimacha Louisana Open.
He faltered in the final round on both occasions to finish 11th twice but his performances have taken him to 36th in the Order of Merit and fuelled talk of the teenager making it into the top-25 who will win cards for the PGA Tour.
That chatter increased in volume after his performances in Shenzhen and Shanghai where Li established himself as a hot favourite with local galleries for his ‘heart on sleeve’ attitude and winning mentality.
“I think my mental game is better than last year, more stable,” said Li. “I am in a whole new state of mind – more confident.”
Li jumped from 195th to 111th on the Official World Golf Ranking after his efforts in China and is now focused on graduating to the PGA Tour.
“My goal is to finish in the top-25 of the Web.com Tour and get my PGA Tour card,” he said.
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