In milestone for China, Li Haotong leads halfway through PGA

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Li Haotong of China, watches his putt on the 10th hole during the second round of the PGA Championship golf tournament at TPC Harding Park Friday, Aug. 7, 2020, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel)

Like too many tour pros, the guy leading the PGA Championship after two rounds is not above letting his clubs do the talking. What makes Li Haotong stand out from the crowd is what one of those clubs says about him.

“HAOTONG IS THE MOST HANDSOME MAN IN CHINA,” reads the stamp — in red capital letters, no less — on the back of Li’s 60-degree wedge.

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While that remains open to debate, the fun-loving 25-year-old is definitely the first Chinese player to hold the lead after any round in a major championship, thanks to a bogey-free 65 Friday that left him two shots clear of the field at 8-under 132. Any doubts Li has enough guts or firepower to contend on the weekend at a toughening TPC Harding Park course should have been vaporized when posted shot 63 in the final round of the British Open over a similarly cool, windy Royal Birkdale layout three years ago to finish third.

“He plays pretty much all guns blazing,” said Adam Scott, Li’s teammate in the Presidents Cup matches last December, “and when it comes off, it’s really good.”

The more relevant question is whether Li, who spent much of the layoff caused by the COVID-19 pandemic back in China, can play consistently enough to hold off a pursuing pack chock-full of major winners and top-tier young stars with considerably more experience in the game’s biggest events. A total of two dozen players were separated by only five shots at the midway point.

Brooks Koepka, the two-time defending champion, a surging Jason Day, the first round co-leader, and Tommy Fleetwood, who carded the low round of 64, were among the half-dozen golfers at 6-under. After an opening-round 68 put him within shouting distance of the lead, Tiger Woods skidded to a 72 and a tie for 44th.

The longer putter Woods credited for his success Thursday may be headed to the trunk of his rental car for the weekend after the total length of the putts he made dropped precipitously from 115 feet to just 48 in round two.

Koepka wasn’t pleased with his performance on the greens, either. But his biggest worry might be a tightening left hip that forced him to wince noticeably after several tee shots. On at least three occasions during his round, Kopeka lay down on the grass and called over a trainer to loosen up the muscles on his left side.

“I felt like I could be 10 (under) right now,” he said afterward.

Li, on the other hand, was pleasantly surprised to be where he was.

“I didn’t even (think) I could play like this … got no confidence,” he said.

Equally puzzling was the to-do over the logo on Li’s hat. The fate of the Chinese social media company WeChat, one of Li’s biggest sponsors, was thrown into doubt a day after President Donald Trump threatened a ban on WeChat and TikTok in 45 days.

“I don’t know,” Li responded when asked about that development. “Who knows?”

Proving that sportsmanship hasn’t been banned, Rory McIlroy arrived at his approach shot alongside the third green to find a reporter had accidentally stepped on it. Rules official Mark Dusbabek gave him a free drop, but after deciding the too-good lie gave him an advantage, McIlory pushed it down into the rough and wound up making bogey.

McIlroy, a two-time PGA Championship winner, got the shot back by running off four birdies in a row, then gave that back with a triple-bogey at No. 12. He carded 1-under 69 and was tied for 31st.

“At the end of the day, golf is a game of integrity and I never try to get away with anything out there. I’d rather be on the wrong end of the rules rather than on the right end,” he said, “because as golfers that’s just what we believe.”

One thing Li believes in, other than his own good looks apparently, is practice. Day recalled seeing Li practicing when he teed off, then incredulously watched a video of Li back at on the range after Day had finished. That was at least three hours after Li had completed his own round.

“I’m going to walk past him and give him some crap,” Day laughed. “He must not have a wife and kids.”

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