Local boy Li Haotong shines among the World Golf Championships stars

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On the rise: Li Haotong.

China’s young rising star Li Haotong once again showed he has the temperament and the talent to compete with the world’s best as he shot a six-under par 66 at the WGC-HSBC Champions on Thursday.

It left the 20-year-old in sole possession of eighth place in the world-class 78-man field after a first round in which he thrilled large galleries of local fans at Sheshan International Golf Club in Shanghai.

Li is three strokes behind leader Branden Grace, but an impressive two shots clear of some of golf’s biggest stars in Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Bubba Watson, who have won eight majors between them.

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“Actually, on Thursday, before, my feeling wasn’t that good, so I don’t know why, but on thursday I played very well. It’s very exciting,” he told AFP after his opening round in the $8.5 million event.

Li has endured a busy time lately, playing consecutive weeks in Macau, Hong Kong and Turkey after spending most of the summer struggling for form on the US PGA’s second-tier Web.com Tour.

But he finally demonstrated some of his prodigious ability at last week’s Turkish Airlines Open where he finished seven-under par in a share of 26th place.

The big-hitting youngster also clearly enjoyed Thursday being able to fire into greens that had been softened by two days of rain.

“The greens were way softer than (when I played here) before so this helped a lot. on Thursday, my irons were pretty good, giving me a lot of putts under 10 foot. Also, I made a lot of putts. Very lucky,” he added.

He first rose to prominence at another European Tour event on Chinese soil, the Shenzhen International in April this year, when as a 19-year-old he outshone double Masters champion Watson with whom he played three rounds.

He was eventually pipped to the title by Thailand’s Kiradechn Aphibarnrat in a play-off.

His home club is Shanghai’s nearby Lake Malaren, the venue for next week’s BMW Masters, and Li enjoyed some vociferous support as he bounced back from a bogey at the first hole to card eight birdies.

“I’m getting more comfortable (with the crowds),” he said.

“I played three rounds with Bubba in Shenzhen, so that helped me become more comfortable.”

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Rory McIlroy climbs out of sick bed to make solid WGC start

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Quick recovery: Rory McIlroy.

Former world number one Rory McIlroy shook off a bout of food poisoning to shoot a four-under par 68 in the first round of the World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions in Shanghai on Thursday.

McIlroy, who had been in bed for most of the past two days, said the illness had caused him to lose 10 pounds in weight (4.5kg), but he still managed to rattle in six birdies.

A double bogey at the tough par-four 15th was the only blemish on his card at Sheshan Golf Club.

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– Qatar: New plans unveil ambitions new Gulf golf course

“I’ve lost 10 pounds since being here. I can’t remember the last time I was this light,” McIlroy said after his round.

“Looking forward to a good dinner tonight — hopefully it will stay inside my body.”

It left the Northern Irish four-time major champion five shots behind leader Branden Grace of South Africa who carded a 63 in windless, soft conditions that saw a raft of low-scoring as 59 of the 78-man field went under par.

“It’s probably a little better than I was expecting out there to be honest,” said McIlroy.

“But one of the hardest things was I had been in bed for basically two days, so whenever I got on to the (practice) range, I was stiff, really, really stiff. “So I had to loosen up quite well. I still feel a little stiff actually.”

World number two Jordan Spieth matched McIlroy’s 68 as did 13 other players in the world-class field including former major champions Bubba Watson, Louis Oosthuizen and Charl Schwartzel.

Masters and US Open champion Spieth was pleased to shake off some rust, having not played competitive golf since the Presidents Cup a month ago.

“I hit some shots that looked like we were just continuing the end of the season and I hit some that looked like I took some time off,” he said. “It was a bit of both.”

McIlroy, who missed a large part of the season after tearing ankle ligaments, holds a slim lead in the European Tour’s Race to Dubai standings with just three events to go.

But second-placed Danny Willett of England got off to a perfect start in his quest to chase down McIlroy by shooting one of the rounds of the day, a seven-under par 65 despite a bogey at his final hole, the ninth. “I’m a bit disappointed with the finish,” said Willett.

“But really pleased overall. Went out there, knuckled down and hit a lot of good shots.

“If you can be within touching distance going into the final event, Dubai could be pretty interesting.” Three players are tied for second on eight-under par — Kevin Kisner of the US, Australia’s Steven Bowditch and Denmark’s Thorbjorn Olesen.

Kisner was especially pleased with his 64 because a recurrence of a back injury had meant he, like McIlroy, had kept the European Tour’s on-site doctor busy and had not managed to hit a shot in anger before on Thursday.

“I did it on Sunday in Malaysia last week,” Kisner said. “It was really bad the last three days, and then Wednesday afternoon, I got some meds from the European Tour doctor, try to knock some of it out.

“I’ve had it in the past, just flares up randomly. Still wasn’t great, but I can hit. That’s the first time I’ve hit.”

Dustin Johnson, the 2013 champion in this event, and fellow US Ryder Cup player Patrick Reed also shot seven-under rounds of 65.

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Joy of Golf: Corporate support is growing the game worldwide

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Victor Dubuisson at Turkish Airlines Open.

As fans, we have often railed against the blatant commercialisation of sport. However, in the last couple of months, I have come across two examples of how corporates have taken it upon themselves to change the face of a sport in their country.

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Last week I was at the Turkish Airlines Open, the first event of the European Tour’s Final Series, where it was amazing to see the extent of their support to golf in Turkey.

And a few weeks ago, I was at inaugural Asia SPIAs that was organised by Sport360 in Manila, where I met the golf sponsorship team of Singha Corporation. It won’t be an exaggeration to say that the incredible journey of Thai golf is inextricably linked to the patronage of Singha and their golf-loving CEO, Santi Bhirombhakdi.

You just have to ask any Thai player, starting from the veteran Bunchu Ruangkit to modern-day superstars like Kiradech Aphibarnrat and Thongchai Jaidee and they will tell you the enormous role played by Singha in their development in the game.

Almost every Thai professional player has benefited from individual sponsorship from the company. They are either title sponsors, or co-sponsors, of every majors men’s and ladies golf tournaments in the country – professional or amateur. They sponsor the Thai amateur teams and have also funded the Singha Elite Golf Performance Centre, one of the most technologically advanced facilities available in Thailand.

That’s not all, they have also built two golf courses and their Singha Park Khon Kaen Golf Club is one of the most unique courses in the world because of the ingenuous method in which they treat and use effluent water from their adjacent brewery.

Each day, the Khon Kaen Brewery discharges 5,000 cubic metres of industrial water, which is used not only in the rice fields, but also fulfills the entire water requirement of the golf course, that also features nine lakes.

But my favourite bit about Singha and golf was the manager and translator they provided to the travelling group of Thai professional players for many years in the 1990s and 2000s.

I always thought that was such a sensible thing to do for a bunch of players, who were incredibly talented and featured regularly on the leaderboard, but were severely handicapped by their inability to speak English. It made their lives so much easier. I now see shades of Singha in Turkish Airlines.

Obviously, they are well known for their sponsorship of the European Tour event, but they are also title sponsors of the Ladies European Tour and European Challenge Tour events in the country. They sponsor the Turkish national team, and have helped drive golf tourism in the country by introducing measures like free golf bags while flying with them.

It’s an avalanche now

What’s happening with golf around the world is just incredible right now.

A lot has already been written about the average age of the top three ranked men in the world – Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy – being 25 years. And then there is Lydia Ko, the No. 1 female golfer in the world, who is 18. But that’s not where the invasion of these twentysomethings is stopping.

The first three tournaments on the PGA Tour this season have seen an age-related record that was almost unthinkable a few years ago.

Smashing barriers: Lydia Ko.

Emiliano Grillo won the Frys. com Open aged 23 and Smylie Kaufman, also 23, followed him to the podium in the Shriners Hospital for Children Open. Then last week, at the CIMB Classic in Kuala Lumpur, 22-year-old Justin Thomas beat Adam Scott, who really must be feeling like a grizzly veteran at the age of 35.

Big announcements in Dubai

The European Tour are on the verge of making a few massive announcements during the DP World Tour Championship, which is sure to keep the eyes of the golf world on Dubai.

The first will be about the future of the Final Series, which is bound to have a different look in 2016. It’s not the best kept secret, but BMW are not going to continue their sponsorship of the BMW Masters, which is going to be played next week in Shanghai.

The Tour is also tweaking their membership policy and the mandatory number of events players need to play each season. Currently, it is 13, but the feeling is that number becomes difficult for players playing on both sides of the Atlantic, especially if they are not in the top-50 of the world rankings. And the third expected announcement is the status of the proposed merger with the Asian Tour.

Stat of the Week

30 – the age difference between the youngest and the oldest player in the WGC-HSBC Champions field this week. That would be the 21-year-old Matthew Fitzpatrick and the 51-year-old Miguel Angel Jimenez.

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