Li Haotong, China’s best male golfer, is putting the world on notice

The China Sports Column is a SupChina weekly feature in which China Sports Insider Mark Dreyer looks at the week that was in the China sports world.

A few years ago, a 14-year-old amateur by the name of Guan Tianlang 关天朗 became the youngest golfer in history to make the cut at the Masters, a feat that inspired headlines proclaiming China was poised to take over golf.

Well, that hasn’t quite happened — yet. But a quick glance at the Top 50 male golfers in the world this week will show another Chinese name: Li Haotong 李昊桐, who, at No. 32, has achieved easily the highest-ever ranking for a Chinese golfer.

What’s more, Li is only 22, the youngest on the list. His ascent came after a stunning performance last week at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, where he played alongside four-time major winner Rory McIlroy in the final pairing on both Saturday and Sunday and beat him to the title by a stroke, despite trailing by two shots with eight holes to play.

And while some headlines would have you believe that McIlroy threw away what should have been his 23rd professional title, this tournament was as much Li’s win as McIlroy’s loss.

Li’s winning score was 23-under-par, a tournament record, and while it would be foolish to start calling him China’s Tiger Woods, it’s interesting to note that the 30 birdies Li shot in the course of the week surpassed this tournament’s previous mark of 27 — set by Tiger in 2001.

Li has quickly established himself as a clutch player, closing with a round of 64 to win the 2016 China Open, a final round of 63 to jump into third place at The Open Championship last summer, and then four birdies in the final six holes in Dubai to secure his latest triumph.

Despite these moments, Li, until recently, was probably best known for a viral moment at last year’s French Open, when he tossed his broken putter into a pond, only to see his mother — unaware that the club was beyond repair — wade into the dirty water to retrieve it.

Now, though, players on the Tour will have to take notice for other reasons. More importantly, Li himself now knows that he belongs at the top level.

Far from becoming an overnight sensation, Li’s rise has been fairly steady so far, after turning pro at age 17. He won three times on the inaugural PGA Tour China Series in 2014, winning the Order of Merit and qualifying to play at the second-tier Tour in the U.S., before switching to the European Tour last year.

And he has what it takes to be a star.

He’s young, tall, funny, good-looking, speaks great English — and the fact that he’s Chinese is, from a global marketing perspective, pure gold. He’s already been signed by the likes of Mercedes, Rolex, and Titleist.

He’s also developed into exactly the kind of player that Nike imagined he could be when the company added him to its roster in June 2013, admitting him to a small group of golfers that, ironically, included both Woods and McIlroy.

And in another twist of fate that would make Alanis Morissette proud, Li and Nike parted ways just weeks before his win in Dubai, with Li decked out in Adidas clothing since the turn of the year (though that partnership has yet to become official).

Golf has had a bad rap in China over the past few years, with on-course deal-making synonymous with corruption, prompting a rule that banned government officials from receiving golf club memberships. Golf course construction has also long been banned due to environmental concerns.

Most of the country got the memo, but some parents saw golf, which requires practice, patience, and more practice, as the best route to college in the U.S. for their kids, and set about homeschooling them on the golf course.

As in tennis, the Chinese women have been putting their male counterparts to shame, with Feng Shanshan 张华创 already at the very top of the rankings, but now a new generation of male Chinese golfers is starting to mature, with some even younger prospects poised to follow them.

Dou Zecheng 窦泽成, 21, and Zhang Xinjun 张新军 recently became the first Chinese players to earn their full playing cards on the main PGA Tour in the U.S., while Wu Ashun 吴阿顺 — like Li — has two wins on the European Tour. The pipeline also includes Andy Zhang 张华创, who played in the 2012 U.S. Open aged 14 and is now playing for the University of Florida, while Ye Wocheng 张新军 qualified to play for the 2013 Volvo China Open — a European Tour event — at just age 12. Guan Tianlang, meanwhile, is now 19, and has reemerged from a post-Augusta funk to play golf at the University of Arizona.

The point is that it was only a matter of time before someone made the breakthrough, even if Li’s success has perhaps come earlier than expected. If he can continue his upward progress and crack the Top 10 or, even better, win a major, then golf could really start to turn the corner in China, especially now that it is back on the Olympic program.

Tiger Woods completely changed the way the game was played, so it’s unrealistic to think there could ever be another like him, in China or elsewhere. But if Li can inspire the next wave to pick up golf clubs instead of opting for a competing sport, the knock-on effect he could have on the demographics of golfers at the top level could be equally dramatic.

Also this week:

  • Stephon Marbury has confirmed to ESPN that he will retire from basketball at the end of the current CBA season, meaning his final game could come on February 11, just a week shy of his 41st birthday. Last year, Marbury announced he wanted to make a comeback in the NBA, where he played for 13 seasons prior to another eight in China. But he now says he’s “at peace” with the decision to call it quits, though he added that he will keep in shape “just in case” an NBA team comes calling. Last week, Marbury intimated online that he was ready for the next chapter and will leave China with three CBA championships, six All-Star appearances (to add to his two NBA All-Star nods), a statue erected in his honor in the Chinese capital, as well as a biopic about himself, starring himself.

  • The NBA is set to kick off its largest ever Chinese New Year celebration, with 12 teams getting into the spirit of things.
  • Klay Thompson might not be the biggest name in the NBA, but he’s cool and Chinese fans love him.
  • In the CSL, pressure is ramping up on the CFA to rule on the murky transfer of Cedric Bakambu to Beijing, while this piece wonders whether Javier Mascherano will treat his time in China as a holiday, like his countryman Carlos Tevez.
  • The Olympics are now just days away and China will send its largest ever delegation — 186 in total — to a Winter Games. The 82 athletes are slightly down on the 91 sent to Vancouver in 2010, but with China competing in a record 55 events, the team needs more coaches, trainers, and technical specialists.
  • Ahead of this weekend’s Super Bowl, here’s how two friends in China are feeding the Eagles’ dog mask craze.

The China Sports Column runs every Friday on SupChina. Follow Mark Dreyer @DreyerChina.