China’s Haotong Li hopes to maintain his career renaissance at the 150th Open Championship at St Andrews this week after pulling himself out of the depths of despair which nearly forced him out of the game.
The 26-year-old Li will make his fifth appearance in the world’s oldest major which has provided some of his fondest memories thanks to an outstanding third place finish at Birkdale in 2017. With his confidence soaring once more following a career third victory on the DP World Tour last month, he cannot wait to tee up alongside the world’s best.
“I am very excited and fortunate to play in The Open,” said Li. “I’m quite familiar and enjoy the atmosphere of The Open and I’m looking forward to a good result,” added the Chinese star, who fired a final round 63 at Birkdale for his best result yet in a major championship.
Three weeks ago, Li snapped a lean spell by winning the BMW International Open in Germany after prevailing in a playoff against Thomas Pieters and revealed later how he nearly threw in the towel after struggling with his game.
Ranked as high as 32nd in the world just four years ago, Li suffered a dip in form following the onset of Covid-19 which limited tournament play and travel for much of 2020 and he admitted it took a toll on his well-being.
“Covid is a problem. I can’t go back to China, so I stayed in Dubai with my physical coach. I still trained and looked for a coach to help with my swing. But I didn’t have purpose during that time,” said Li, who was the first mainland Chinese golfer to qualify and play for the International Team in the 2019 Presidents Cup.
“I couldn’t eat well, couldn’t sleep well. It was too difficult, especially the psychological suffering. I felt many things were not in control. It is good I am now out from that difficult position.”
At his lowest point, Li recalled how he hit four wayward drives out of bounds during a tournament in Kenya. He played in 18 events in 2021, missing 14 cuts and when he returned to China last September to participate in the National Games , he told his family that he would remain at home if his game didn’t show signs of a revival.
“When I played in Kenya in 2021, I played fours OBs on one hole with wide fairway. I told my father that I couldn’t continue like this. Later I didn’t play any tournament for four months. I went to America, and tried different coaches. I didn’t have any immediate results but that was a start for me to adjust myself,” he said.
“Later that year, I came back to China to play in the National Games and I said to my mother and friends that if I still couldn’t play well, I would stay in China. It turned out that I played well (finishing runner-up). I appreciate all the support from my family, friends, and Liang Wen-chong (fellow golfer). And when I went back to the DP World Tour to play in the Alfred Dunhill Links subsequently, I found more positives with my golf (to finish 14th). And early this year, I played in the Sony Open in Hawaii on the PGA TOUR and I was in pretty good form to finish tied 12th.”
With two more top-10s on the DP World Tour and three other top-40 finishes, Li found his way back into the winner’s circle when he holed an audacious 50-foot putt in a playoff against Pieters to triumph in Munich, sparking an emotional celebration.
“I don’t feel much pressure now,” said Li. “I don’t have to worry much about keeping my card. Now I have the opportunity to choose events to play and focus to play well in every tournament.”
He welcomed news of the strengthening of the strategic alliance between the DP World Tour and PGA TOUR, which amongst others, will grant the leading 10 players from the former circuit with cards on the latter from 2023 onwards.
Li may try his luck at the Korn Ferry Tour Finals, a series of three events in August which hands out 25 PGA TOUR cards, if he can qualify for it by gaining enough FedExCup points at The Open this week.
“I have tried playing on both the PGA TOUR and DP World Tour over the years, and I’ve gotten used to this. I will try to get enough points and hopefully I can play in the KFT finals together with Marty Dou, Carl Yuan and Xinyun Zhang, and all of us can get our PGA TOUR cards for next season,” said Li.
“The alliance between the PGA TOUR and DP World Tour is so great, giving us more opportunities to sharpen ourselves in tournaments all over the world. I want to thank the DP World Tour and PGA TOUR for all the policies and opportunities that could benefit us.”