China’s Haotong Li kept his sights firmly on a title assault at the Sony Open in Hawaii with a second round 5-under 65 on Friday as Japanese world amateur No. 1 Keita Nakajima reinforced his credentials as a rising star.
Li, once a top-50 golfer in the world but now ranked 460th, maintained his resurgence by firing six birdies and one bogey at Waialae Country Club in Honolulu where his 12-under 128 total left him in solo second and three behind 36-hole leader Russell Henley.
The 21-year-old Nakajima bounced back from an early bogey as he fired seven birdies in his last 11 holes for an impressive 64 to stand at 9-under in a share of fifth place alongside countryman and Masters champion, Hideki Matsuyama who carded a 65 in the US$7.5 million PGA TOUR tournament.
The last two years have been one to forget for the 26-year-old Li as his form dipped after bursting onto the scene with two wins on the DP World Tour. He also finished third at the 2017 Open Championship, featured in the 2019 Presidents Cup and held the 36-hole lead at the 2020 PGA Championship before finishing T17.
The Chinese was delighted to move into contention. “First few holes wasn’t quite on, especially on my tee shot, but luckily kind of have good recovery. I played great on my back nine, a lot of putts, and play super solid,” said Li, who opened with a 63 on Thursday.
Since last year, Li began working with Jamie Mulligan, who also coaches reigning FedExCup champion Patrick Cantlay, and the signs have been encouraging which include two runner-up finishes in domestic events towards the end of last year. “I just need to hit a lot of good tee shot again and try to keep the ball in play and put it in the right positions,” he said.
While he harbours dreams of becoming the first mainland Chinese to win on the PGA TOUR, he knows he needs to stay patient which he learned after leading into the weekend at the PGA. “That’s very good experience because I never been there before. Learn a lot. Learn how to stay patient in certain situation. So it’s great to be here and to be in contention again,” said Li.
He showed up in Hawaii with a new look, wearing prescription spectacles which has certainly kept him in focus so far. “I always wear contact lens since last year, but somehow that thing made my eye so dry so often, so like one day I forget to put my contact lens on, I just put like normal glasses on. Felt like it was all right, so kind of works,” he said.
Such was Nakajima’s superb ball striking display that he made only one birdie putt outside of 15 feet amongst his gains on Friday. He won a Japan Golf Tour event last year and then capped 2021 by winning the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship – following in the footsteps of Matsuyama and Takumi Kanaya – to earn a Masters invitation. He will also be in the field at the U.S. Open and The Open Championship this year.
“A little nervous, but continue good swing and good read on the green, so I got to like change mood,” said Nakajima, who started his day from the 10th. “Beginning I made bogey but I got birdie 17, 18. I think I will enjoy this great course and this moment.”
Nakajima, who hails from Saitama, is amongst a new breed of golfers emerging from Japan, which has no doubt been inspired by Matsuyama’s heroics on the PGA TOUR where he has won seven times including the Masters and ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP, Japan’s lone PGA TOUR event, last year.
“He’s a superstar in Japan. I want to catch up to Mr. Hideki and Mr. Takumi, as well,” said Nakajima.