Li Hoatong shoots 65, surprised to be in lead at PGA Championship

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SAN FRANCISCO — Li Haotong doesn’t know what to make of President Donald Trump’s ban on WeChat, the Chinese social media application that is prominently displayed as one of the golfer’s endorsers on his cap. He also doesn’t know what to make of leading the PGA Championship.

Li, 25, whose third-place finish at the 2017 Open was the highest-ever finish by a Chinese golfer in a men’s major championship, shot 65 at TPC Harding Park on Friday to take the early second-round lead by two strokes over Tommy Fleetwood.

A two-time winner on the European Tour, Li has not posted a top-10 finish in more than a year and has slipped to 114th in the world after becoming the first golfer from China to crack the top 50 when he beat Rory McIlroy at the 2018 Dubai Desert Classic.

In two starts since golf’s restart following the coronarivus pandemic shutdown, Li missed the cut with rounds of 74-77 at Memorial and tied for 75th last week at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational with scores of 68-73 — 74-75.

“I didn’t even think I could play (like) this this week, especially … (I’ve) got no confidence,” Li said. “Probably it helped me clear my mind a little bit this week.”

Li, whose home is in Shanghai, returned to China during the pandemic shutdown, where he said he was able to play golf. One of his sponsors is WeChat and the company’s logo has been on his hat during the first two rounds of the tournament. Trump on Thursday signed an executive order that would ban business interactions with WeChat, a service that allows people in the United States to communicate with friends and family in China as many U.S.-based apps are banned in China.

Asked what he thought about it, Li said: “I don’t know. Who knows?”

He also didn’t know much about how he finds himself atop a leaderboard at the first major championship of 2020. “Well, I’ve got no expectations actually, because you know, last few months, stay at home doing nothing,” he said. “I just want to be out here and have fun.”

Golf is a lot more fun when you don’t make bogeys. Li has made just one through 36 holes, and has nine birdies. He played without a bogey on Friday, shooting 31 for the first nine holes, adding another birdie at the 10th and then playing the last eight holes with all pars. All of that despite the fact he hit just four of 10 fairways. Li still manged to hit 14 of 18 greens and needed just 27 putts.

Aside from being just one of five players to shoot 63 in the final round of a major championship, Li might best be known for an incident that occurred during the 2017 French Open. Frustrated, Li tossed his putter into a nearby lake following a bogey on the 11th hole at Le Golf National.

He played the remaining holes using a sand wedge on the greens. But as he played on, a spectator whom the European Tour later identified as the golfer’s mother rolled up her pants and went into the water to retrieve the putter — only to discover it had been broken in two.

“I don’t think I’ll ever see a player’s mum trying to rescue a snapped putter from a pond again,” tweeted English golfer Eddie Pepperell, who witnessed it that day. Li went on to shoot a 63 playing alongside Ernie Els during the final round of The Open, earning him the top-4 finish that was necessary for him to qualify for the 2018 Masters. Li only learned of the Masters invite during post-round interviews. “Wow,” he said. “What a gift!”

He is now competing in his 12th major championship, having played the first two rounds of last year’s Masters with eventual champion Tiger Woods. Li tied for 43rd at Augusta National. Li is now looking to be the first player from China to ever lead after any round of a major championship — with a bigger goal to strive for this weekend.

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