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.”
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