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Li launches North American swing at Riviera

© AFP/File | This week's Genesis Open is the start of a North American swing for Li Haotong that will include his first World Golf Championships event outside of China, the 2018 Mexico Championship in March

LOS ANGELES (AFP) - 

China's rising golf star Li Haotong may have had his most nerve-racking moment at the Genesis Open even before the first round tees off on Thursday -- meeting tournament host Tiger Woods.

The 22-year-old Li became China's first men's golfer to break into the top 50 in the world rankings after he edged four-time major-winner Rory McIlroy at the Dubai Desert Classic in January.

He was awarded the last sponsor's invitation to the US PGA Tour's Genesis Open at Riviera Country Club.

Li got a chance to thank former world number one Woods when they met this week.

"It's a lovely experience," Li, 22, said. "He's the first guy to make me nervous on the Tour, pretty much my golfing hero. It's such a big honor to meet him."

Meeting the 14-time major champion may have given Li some butterflies, but everywhere else around the course Li is feeling pretty comfortable these days.

Even going head-to-head with McIlroy in Dubai -- where Li carded a three-under-par 69 on Sunday for a tournament-record total of 23-under par 265 -- didn't rattle him.

"The first few holes, I was very nervous," he said. "But since I made my first birdie just everything (was) so comfortable and life (was) easier."

It was Li's second win on the European Tour, following his victory at the 2016 China Open.

He also made waves at the Open Championship last year, where he carded a final round 63 for a share of third.

He's punched his ticket to all four of 2018's majors, starting with the Masters at Augusta National in April.

This week's tournament is the start of a North American swing for Li that will also include his first World Golf Championships event outside of China, the 2018 Mexico Championship in March, as he builds toward Augusta.

"It's kind of like a dream come true," he said of the prospect of playing the Masters. So far he hasn't formulated any special plan for tackling the fabled course.

"I've got a couple experiences of majors, so I may just go there, play (it) like a regular event, get there Monday, Tuesday, just hopefully enjoy that week and wish I can play well down there."

© 2018 AFP