Li Haotong pipped Rory McIlroy to the Dubai Desert Classic at Emirates Golf Club by a single shot – and the stats show there is one part of his game that ultimately clinched the title.
Li was ranked nowhere when it came to length off the tee and greens in regulation – but when it came to putting, there was nobody better.
Over the course of 72 holes, Li ranked 13th in distance of the tee at an average of 303.9 yards, and an astonishing 47th when it came to greens in regulation, with just 65%.
Compare this to McIlroy, whose impressive long game saw him ranked first off the tee with an average of more than 321 yards. This was followed up with a not-so-impressive 27th for greens in regulation (70.8%), but the advantage certainly lay with the Northern Irishman.
But it was on the short grass that Li took over taking an average of just 1.49 putts per green, and needing just 23.8 putts per round over the four day – both figures ranking him first in the field.
McIlroy on the other hand, required 1.7 putts per hole (rank 40), and 27 putt per round (rank 27)
Driving for show, putting for dough indeed.
Add to this the fact Li never once dropped a shot when he found the sand, a 100 per cent save-rate, compared to 60 per cent from McIlroy and we can see that it was the Chinese star’s short game that took him to the title in Dubai.
Since then, he’s plummeted down the rankings. From his highest of 29th in February 2016, he’s dropped to 145th. That will likely rise when the new rankings are released following a tied sixth finish at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic last weekend.
But Sullivan freely admits he let his standards slip following “too much success, too soon”, something he is determined not to let happen again as he eyes a return to the top.
“I just didn’t work hard enough,” Sullivan, 31, told Sport360, bluntly, following a -16 under par 272 that earned him a €47,401 (Dh216,359) Dubai payday. A bogey on the last robbed him of double that.
“I got to a Ryder Cup pretty quickly and won tournaments pretty quickly and I think I took my foot off the gas. I’ve just got to keep working really hard because these boys are ready to overtake you straight away.
“I definitely did (let my standards slip), I put my hands up to that. You’ve got to keep working hard and credit to Rory (McIlroy) and the guys at the top, they keep working harder and getting better.
“You learn from your mistakes and I’m going to continue to work hard and keep myself up there.
“You get that feeling of being in the last few groups and having a sniff. It didn’t quite happen (on Sunday) but it’s nice to be in there and the more you do it, the more comfortable it feels.
“It’s something I didn’t do and I’ve had to take a few steps back to get where I want to go.”
Where the Englishman wants to go is to a second Ryder Cup, after getting a taste of golf’s greatest competition two years ago in Hazeltine.
Sullivan’s first win on tour came in January 2015 at the South African Open. Success quickly followed with wins at the Joburg Open in March and October’s Portugal Masters – the first player to record three victories on tour that year.
He was one of eight automatic selections on captain Darren Clarke’s team as Europe lost 17-11 – handing America victory for the first time since 2008.
And he’s desperate to get back there, as well as make up for lost time.
“Everything’s going in the right direction,” he said.
“I’m starting to get back to my best. I feel like my game’s in really solid shape, it’s confidence going forward and hopefully I can take that into what I’m doing for the rest of the season and make a push for this Ryder Cup.
“Once you’ve played one you don’t want to miss any. I want to play as many as I can. I know it’s going to be a tough ask for me to get in. I will have to put in a lot of good performances between now and July/August, but the game’s going in the right direction.
“I feel a lot more comfortable on the golf course now than I did at the end of last year. I didn’t have a lot of confidence. I put a lot of hard work in over the seven weeks I had off, have come back a lot stronger and fitter and I’m ready to go.
“It’s a nice feeling because I didn’t enjoy it much last year and now the game’s coming back I’m starting to enjoy it again which is only going to help me play my best golf.”
Gary Player and Thomas Bjorn both agree Li Haotong can change the face of golf and be the Asian star the men’s game is crying out for.
The talented 22-year-old went toe-to-toe with world number 11 Rory McIlroy at the weekend as he lifted the Omega Dubai Desert Classic title in thrilling fashion – clawing back a two-shot deficit to the four-time major winner, having trailed on the 10th hole.
His -23 under par total was the lowest overall score shot at the magnificent Majlis course since the tournament was first held in 1989.
It was a second career victory on the European Tour and first for Li outside his home country following a maiden triumph at the Volvo China Open in 2016.
Perhaps the most significant record broken on Sunday was the fact Li will now break into the world’s top 50 – the first Chinese player to do so.
His emergence bodes well and he already seems to possess flair for the big stage, having finished third at the Open Championship last year – on just his second major appearance.
And two men who are encouraged by his rapid rise and feel he has a great future are Player, winner of nine majors, and Bjorn, the 2018 European Ryder Cup captain.
“I saw Li play two years ago at the Volvo China Open and I said to him ‘Mr Li, you’re going to be a champion’,” South African legend Player told Sport360 at his Gary Player Invitational held at Saadiyat Beach Golf Club in Abu Dhabi Monday.
“I told him ‘you’ve got to be a champion for China’. I was so tickled by his performance (at the Dubai Desert Classic), three birdies in the last four holes.
“He’s got a great personality, he’s a lovely guy and he’s great for golf. China have lady champions, winning medals at the Olympics (China’s Shanshan Feng won bronze in Rio, while gold went to South Korea’s Inbee Park).
“They need a male one and they’ve got one. I don’t k now how good he can be, that depends on him. How hard is he going to practice, is he going to make too much money and go back to China? Who knows.
“I would also love to see a champion come from this area (Middle East), and it can happen. I think professional golf is in a wonderful place at the moment.
“It does my heart good to see it going to Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Malaysia, China. I love to see that. I never thought I’d live to see that. You learn so much when you play in other countries, from the food to the people, the cultures.”
Although Asia has produced one men’s major champion – Korea’s Yang Yong-eun memorably came from behind to defeat Tiger Woods at the 2009 PGA Championship – his triumph sees him walk a lonely road.
This is in stark contrast to what is a boom time for women’s golf on the continent.
Asian women have long been lighting up the golfing world, with Japan’s Chako Higuchi the first major winner from Asia – four decades ago. She won the LPGA Championship in 1977 at North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.
Since her breakthrough, there have been 17 more champions from Asia – winning an amazing 32 major championships between them.
Of the last 61 women’s majors, 30 have incredibly been won by Asian golfers.
But this has failed to have a knock-on effect in the men’s game. After his 2009 triumph, Yang finished tied eighth at the following year’s Masters and shared third at the US Open in 2011 before falling off the grid.
Although Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama is now ranked fifth in the world – and compatriots Yuta Ikeda and Satoshi Kodaira are 39th and 42nd, while South Korea’s Kim Si-woo is 40th – the Far East awaits its second major champion, and a player to really act as a poster boy.
And Bjorn believes Li native is that boy.
“China’s been longing for this player, and here he is. A guy who can take it all the way to the top,” said the Dane, a 15-time champion on the European Tour.
“He’s a fantastic talent. The way he stood up (on Sunday), I did some commentary, and I said the most important thing for him to do was hang onto Rory’s coattails and be there the last couple of holes, and anything thing can happen in golf, and it turned out that way.”
Li’s record-breaking -23 was poignant as it beat the previous mark of -22, initially set by Bjorn in 2001, while vanquished McIlroy matched it when he won for the second time in Dubai in 2015.
Bjorn, who led Europe to a 14-10 win over Li’s Asia in the EurAsia Cup earlier this month, added: “When you watch him play he’s capable of going right to the top of the game.
“That’s fantastic for golf. We’ve talked about China and development of golf there for so many years, here he is, someone who can change the face of Chinese golf.
“We need to appreciate that and get behind it. There’s going to be great things for him going forward and some tough moments too because he’ll carry that burden for Chinese golf, which is a big burden.
“He’ll need a lot of support from players, tours, media, to understand he represents something quite big, he can change the face of golf going forward.”