Highly tipped young Chinese golfer Li Hao-tong is aiming to become the first player from his country to join the PGA Tour as he chases his ultimate dream of winning a major.
The mainland's number three player, who turned 20 in August, said it would take three years to become comfortable with the field after gaining his PGA Tour card and was under no illusion of the challenges that await him at the highest level.
But the ambition of the Hunan-born six-footer is unmistakable.
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"If you can stay there (on the PGA Tour) forever, you will win," Li told AFP as he practised his drives at the Hong Kong Golf Club, ahead of the Hong Kong Open, which gets under way Thursday. "It's my dream to one day win a major."
The trophy he most covets is the Masters and despite the daunting scale of the challenge, he has already made impressive strides since turning pro in 2011.
Last year he became the first Chinese player to join the Web.com Tour and he is currently based at the Bishops Gate Golf Academy in Florida.
Li has been hailed as the successor to Chinese golfing pioneers such as Zhang Lian-wei and Liang Wen-chong, but he has already achieved more than his compatriots had by his age.
In just 10 weeks, from September to November last year, he won a US$1 million OneAsia tournament and three PGA Tour China events to break into the world's top 200.
Li has also come to symbolise the growing popularity of golf in mainland China but he cautioned that obstacles to the game's growth remained.
He singled out the anti-corruption drive of President Xi Jinping, which he blamed for the closure of dozens of courses. In March Beijing ordered the closure of 66 illegal golf courses in a crackdown on a violation of rules protecting arable land and conserving water.
— Haotong Li (@haotong_li) October 20, 2015
But some commentators have suggested the move is an extension of Xi's high-profile campaign against extravagance on the part of public officials in a country where golf is regarded as an elite past-time.
"Last year it felt like golf was getting more popular but now it's getting a little trouble," he said.
Yet despite being based in the United States, Li said he remains proudly Chinese and excited to play at the Fanling course in the New Territories, from where the skyscrapers of Shenzhen, just over the border, sparkle in the sunshine.
"I always have China in my heart and Hong Kong is part of China, and it's the first time I have played golf here," he said. "This week will be more enjoyable for me. I am not a European Tour player, I am not an Asian Tour player, I just want to play with some good players."
In the past he has singled out world number four Bubba Watson as someone he'd like to emulate but at the Hong Kong Open he held up England's world number seven Justin Rose, who won the 2013 US Open, as someone he admired.
"He's a really nice guy — and he's won a major," Li added with a grin.
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Ask any professional golfer as to what bugs him the most on a golf course, and chances are that nine out of ten would say ‘pace of play’.
And yet, given the camaraderie between the players, and the traditional diktat of being a gentleman on the golf course with your behaviour towards your playing partners and others, very few golfers have had the guts to name and shame fellow players for slow play.
South African Rory Sabbatini, who is just brilliant with his speed of play, did that once to American Ben Crane, and was roundly criticised by the media.
Sabbatini decided enough was enough and walked off even before Crane played his second shot to the green. By the time Crane reached his ball on the green, Sabbatini had already chipped, made his putt and walked off to the next tee.
But to hasten the pace of play, what golf really needs is an effective neighbourhood watch programme involving the players. They are not trying to win popularity contests, but polite nudges to slower players should be encouraged.
— Your Golf Travel (@yourgolftravel) October 18, 2015
This is why I feel Alvaro Quiros wasn’t wrong in ranting about defending Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf champion Gary Stal at the Portugal Masters last week. The Frenchman’s deliberateness had slowed down the group and forced an official to time them.
But according to Quiros, the moment an official started following the group, Stal’s pace of play improved dramatically. Quiros reported Stal to the European Tour after the round, and then called him a “pain in the a**e” and a “cheat” while speaking to the media.
Obviously, by ‘cheating’, he meant the ability to play much faster in the presence of an official. It was a bit of an extreme step for Quiros, but something that is needed. It could have been done more diplomatically, like a polite conversation with Stal during the course of the round itself, but hopefully, other players will become more aware after this.
Poulter given hope
Well, if Ian Poulter somehow makes a turnaround in his form from here on and wins another Ryder Cup for Europe in Hazeltine next year, then America can blame one of their very own, 2002 PGA champion Rich Beem, for that.
As is well known now, Beem gave up a sponsor’s exemption at the last minute to make way for Poulter to play this week in Hong Kong, thus ensuring he’d be able to play the minimum 13 events required to keep his European Tour membership – a prerequisite to be eligible to play the Ryder Cup.
There is bound to be a bit of controversy with the way the whole thing was done, as a player needs to sign up for a tournament two weeks before the event, and the European Tour had to swing into action in the last minute after it became apparent that Poulter will not qualify for the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai because he dropped out of the top-50 in world rankings.
— The European Tour (@EuropeanTour) October 22, 2015
The Tour is already taking some flak for the special consideration made in the case of Rory McIlroy, who would not have qualified for the DP World Tour Championship because he did not play the mandatory numbers of events required to become eligible for it.
So, were the European Tour out of line when they took it upon themselves to ensure McIlroy played in Dubai and Poulter gets a chance to play in Hazeltine? Absolutely not. I
t may seem unfair to someone like Danny Willett, who is No. 2 on the Race to Dubai to McIlroy, or the player who finishes 16th and misses out on the substantial bonus cheque, but it seems the right thing to do.
Imagine the criticism they would have faced if they did not act. The fans, the sponsors and the media deserve to see the best players in action. And I am sure even Willett would have felt hollow about his European No. 1 crown had McIlroy been out of the equation.
Grillo takes aim
When they told Emiliano Grillo that he should be aiming for the best, the young Argentine almost took the advice literally. During Saturday’s third round of the Frys.com Open, which he eventually won after a play-off against Kevin Na, Grillo nearly took out world No. 3 Rory McIlroy with his tee shot.
On the 17th hole, McIlroy had just chipped from the greenside rough Silverado when a ball from the group behind landed perilously close to the superstar.
Emiliano Grillo: “I didn’t want to be the guy who almost hit Rory McIlroy this week. I wanted people to know me because I have the trophy.”
— Ryan Lavner (@RyanLavnerGC) October 19, 2015
That ball belonged to Grillo, who was under the impression that McIlroy’s group had called them on the drivable par-4 hole.
Grillo is living a dream right now, having won on his last two starts in the US. He triumphed in the Web. com Tour Championship, thus securing his PGA Tour card for the new season, and after a gap of one week, won the Frys.com Open.
Quote of the Week
“I don’t care about the individuals themselves but when you’re carrying the Australian flag you don’t represent your country like an idiot, you represent the country like the country wants to be represented.” – Greg Norman doesn’t mince words as he criticises Australian tennis stars Nick Kyrgios and Bernard Tomic for behaving “stupidly” on the tour.
Graeme McDowell returns to a happy hunting ground this week at the UBS Hong Kong Open and is hopeful that familiar surroundings can inspire him to a first European Tour win of the season.
The 36-year-old finished is without a top-10 since finishing ninth in Dubai Desert Classic, but has shown encouraging signs since missing the cut at the PGA Championship in August. He returned to action at the Porsche European Open and then went under-par in 11 consecutive rounds.
McDowell, who has finished in the top 20 on all four of his previous appearances in the Hong Kong Golf Club, said: “I think I’m really close. I’ve been hitting it much better the last few months. Sort of there or thereabouts at the Dunhill Links, and then also at the British Masters.
“I feel like I’m really close. It has not been the kind of year I’d hoped for but that’s the game of golf. You’ve got to take the rough with the smooth. Got to keep working and keep trying.
“So, I feel like sort of turning the corner and the motivation, the confidence is coming back to me, and looking forward to being on leaderboards very soon.
“I had 11 rounds under par in a row since coming back to the European Tour. I think that helps with the confidence, familiar players and familiar venues, and just feeling comfortable.”
Meanwhile, Ian Poulter said he only has himself to blame for requiring a last-minute dash across 12 time zones to play in Hong Kong.
The 39-year-old was 46th at the start of last week, when victories by Emiliano Grillo and Andy Sullivan combined with other results to drop him down to 51st, thus making him ineligible for the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai.
Didn’t do too bad, slept until 4am which isn’t bad after sleeping 10 hours of the NY – HK flight. Light gym warm up and early breakfast.
— Ian Poulter (@IanJamesPoulter) October 21, 2015
He would have been unable to play the 13 events required for European Tour membership, meaning he’d not be considered for the Ryder Cup next year.
“To drop that far in the world rankings was not expected,” Poulter said. “I knew when the cut-off was and I am very good with the rankings and doing the calculations.
“Obviously this wouldn’t have happened if I had played better, but even still, dropping the way I did in the last couple of weeks was drastic. It was an incredible drop.
“It’s really bizarre. It’s put everyone in a bad position and I am just really grateful to everyone for helping me out. It’s down to bad play and poor management of my schedule and neither of things are good.
“I guess that’s the risk you run when you have two tour cards and you are trying to play two schedules. We got this one wrong, but I am here to try and play as good as I can.”
Poulter faces stiff opposition from a strong field which includes Ryder Cup team-mate Justin Rose, as well as American pair Patrick Reed and Dustin Johnson.