Haotong Li takes lead into weekend at PGA Championship
SAN FRANCISCO – If you are one of those people waking up on the weekend surprised to see China’s Haotong Li atop the leaderboard midway through the 102nd PGA Championship, don’t feel alone. Li is surprised to be there, too.
Over two days at TPC Harding Park, which continues to grow drier, firmer, and tougher, Li, ranked 114th in the world and only four days past his 25th birthday, simply has been steadier than any of the more heralded players he is competing against. Li had trouble finding fairways on Friday, hitting only four (of 14), but still managed to hit greens (14/18). He had no trouble running into birdies, making seven. He is a world-class talent, having made the International Presidents Cup team a year ago, and has shown big on a world stage before, finishing third at the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale three summers ago.
Through two rounds, Li, who had a brilliant 5-under 65 on Friday, is at 8-under 132, and owns a two-shot lead over a pretty strong six-pack that includes Brooks Koepka, who is trying to make history by becoming the first player to win three consecutive PGAs in nearly a century. Koepka followed an opening 66 with a 2-under 68 on Friday in tougher conditions.
Li does not have a top-10 finish outside of China since March of 2019. How he will stand up to the weekend and the pressure of sleeping on the lead at a major championship is anyone’s guess. Li seems curious to find out himself.
“I've got no expectation actually,” he said, “because you know, last few months, stay at home (in China) doing nothing. I just want to be out here (and) have fun.”
Li has plenty of length, has ably handled shots out of Harding Park’s thick rough, and through two rounds has done a terrific job of avoiding mistakes. He was bogey-free on Friday and made only one bogey a day earlier on a golf course that has been beating on many of the world’s top players.
“He plays pretty much all guns blazing,” said Australia’s Adam Scott, a teammate of Li’s on the last International Presidents Cup team, “and when it comes off, it's really good.”
Six players head to the weekend at 6-under 134, two shots behind: Koepka, who already owns four major titles; 2015 PGA champion Jason Day (69); 2013 U.S. Open champion Justin Rose (68); Tommy Fleetwood (64), Rose’s fellow Englishman; Daniel Berger (67), a winner at Colonial and one of the hottest players of 2020; and Frenchman Mike Lorenzo-Vera (68), who enjoys the game’s bigger stages.
Tiger Woods, in only his second start since the PGA Tour shutdown and reopening amidst the threat of Covid-19, struggled with the speed of the greens and hovered near the cutline early Friday evening. He shot 2-over 72 and is tied for 44th at even-par 140. Seventy-nine players survived the cut (low 70 players and ties), which fell at 1-over 141. Among those sneaking in right on the number were world No. 1 Justin Thomas (70); Jordan Spieth (68), who needs the PGA to complete a career Grand Slam; and Phil Mickelson (69), a former PGA champion (and five-time major winner) competing in his first major since turning 50.
Woods has a huge gap to cover to climb his way back into contention, but remained optimistic for his weekend ahead. He has won the PGA four times (one more ties him for most PGA victories with Walter Hagen and Jack Nicklaus) and owns 15 majors overall. Can he still win?
“Yeah, absolutely,” said Woods, who was 3 over for his round through 15 holes before notching a birdie at the short par-4 16th to provide a little cushion. “This golf course is -- with the dots (hole locations) for tomorrow, they've got them in some tough spots. Tomorrow I'm going off early and hopefully I can get it going, drive the ball like I did today, hit my irons a little bit more crisp and be a little bit more aggressive on the putts.”
Koepka woke up with a tight left hip and needed to be worked on by a physio three times during his round on Friday. Koepka said that Harding Park and what it demands of players reminds him a little bit of Bellerive, in St. Louis, where he won the first of his two PGAs two years ago, outdueling Woods.
“It's tough. You know, this rough, you put it in there, you're going to be in trouble,” Koepka said. “You can't short-side yourself out here. These greens are too firm. There's a lot of wind so you've got to really be able to control your ball flight and it's kind of the same thing. But I mean, I really like this golf course, the way it sets up. I think it definitely separates the guys who are hitting it well and the guys who aren’t.”
Li has played the best, but now comes a test the 25-year-old never has faced before. Should he pull it off, he’d become the first male player from China to win a golf major championship. Is he ready?
“I don't even know what I'm going to do,” Li said, a big smile creasing his face. “Just play golf, mate.”