Victorious Li Hao-tong set to be China’s breakout star

It is a lot to ask of someone who cannot legally buy a drink in his adopted home of Orlando until August, but Li Hao-tong could finally be the male Chinese star the world of golf has been waiting for.

Victorious Li Hao-tong set to be China’s breakout star

Certainly the manner of Li’s victory in the Volvo China Open suggests the 20-year-old can shoulder the enormous burden of expectation which will now descend on his slim frame, a closing 64 leaving him three shots clear of the field at the appropriately named Topwin Golf and Country Club.

Starting the final round two shots off the lead, Li briefly fell further behind despite three birdies in the first seven holes, with overnight joint leader Felipe Aguilar going one better with four birdies in the same stretch.

However, when Li cranked up the pressure with further birdies at the 8th, 10th, 11th, and 15th, it was the 41-year-old Aguilar — twice a European Tour winner — who cracked.

As Aguilar found water with a woefully mis-hit tee shot on the 16th, Li was firing a stunning approach to within two feet of the hole on the 17th to effectively seal a maiden European Tour title, just over a year after he had lost out to Thailand’s Kiradech Aphibarnrat in a play-off for the Shenzhen International.

The following week Li finished sixth in the Volvo China Open to reach a career-high world ranking of 111, but despite a tie for seventh in the WGC-HSBC Champions in November last year, he arrived in Beijing ranked 237th and admitting he did not even expect to make the cut.

That was a result of poor form in four Web.com Tour events and two on the PGA Tour and even a return to Genzon Golf Club for the Shenzhen International did not inspire a return to form.

But rounds of 69, 67, 66, and 64 in the shadow of the Great Wall of China mean that Li will jump from 237th to around 130th — when the rankings are updated following the completion of the delayed Zurich Classic of New Orleans — to become the top-ranked Chinese player and is fully exempt on the European Tour until the end of 2018.

That will surely lead to the dream of earning a PGA Tour card being put on hold for now, especially with the likes of the Irish Open at the K Club, BMW PGA Championship, French Open, and Scottish Open on the horizon.

What the future holds for golf itself in Li’s native China remains to be seen, with mixed messages the order of the day for more than a decade.

In 2004, the national government banned the building of new courses because of environmental concerns, but in the next 10 years, the number of courses grew from 200 to more than 600 and China became a regular venue on the European Tour.

The PGA Tour belatedly got in on the act with the formation of the PGA Tour China in 2014, but just a year later, the Communist Party banned its 88m members from joining golf clubs and 66 “illegal” courses were shut down.

However, last month, the party clarified that playing golf is a perfectly legal activity for members, as long as they pay for it themselves. According to the BBC, an article in the official newspaper of the anti-corruption bureau said: “There is no right or wrong about playing golf, as it’s just a sport.”

As long as Li Hao-tong can maintain that attitude as he tackles the next stage of his career, who knows what he can achieve.

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