China's Li leads Shanghai WGC to fuel home hopes

Shanghai (AFP) –


A last-minute switch back to his old clubs helped China's Li Haotong find his groove and delight a home crowd by charging to the first-round lead in the WGC-HSBC Championships in Shanghai on Thursday.

China's highest-ranked male golfer and its first-ever President's Cup selection, Li's eight-under-par 64 also made him the first Chinese player to hold a lead after any round in a World Golf Championships event.

It was Li's best performance yet after 24 previous rounds in Asia's premiere golf event, which offers a big purse and attracts a high-powered field.

Li, known as much for his quick smile as for a fast-improving game, has emerged as China's best hope for a long-awaited break into the top ranks of the men's game, and he looked it in Shanghai.

Playing alongside one of his idols, Phil Mickelson, the world number 59 didn't drop a shot on his front nine and cruised home to a one-shot lead at Sheshan International Golf Club.

A posse of golfers including former Masters champion Adam Scott of Australia and last year's winner in Shanghai, Xander Schauffele, were two strokes back of Li.

Li, 24, became the first Chinese male golfer to break into the world top 50 a year ago, and is seeking his first PGA Tour win.

"Obviously it would be great joy for Chinese golfers and golf fans to have a Chinese player winning a WGC-HSBC Champions here in China, but for the next three days, anything could happen," he said afterward.

Li switched back to an older set of clubs just before the tournament after failing to gel with some new irons.

"I (didn't) feel good with my new irons, and I actually had to change back to my old clubs this week to feel more comfortable in my own swing and putting," said Li.

China has long been viewed as the next frontier for golf talent, but that vision has been slow to materialise -- at least in the men's game.

But Li heads a cadre of emerging young golfers providing new hope, and a win in east Asia's biggest event would be a major step forward.

Reigning champ Schauffele looked potent as well, despite suffering from bad flu.

The American led the field in birdies on Thursday with nine for a six-under-par 66.

"Maybe I should just keep my flu going and if I can rattle off a 66 every day, I think that would be enough," Schauffele said.

"I think a couple more nights of sleep, I'll be in better shape. But it was a dream start with what things were looking like."

World number two Rory McIlroy said this week his sights were set on regaining the world's top ranking that he held four years ago, possibly next year, but it didn't go well for him early.

His front nine was marred by three bogeys as he struggled to gain momentum, but a quintet of birdies down the stretch kept him well within contention.

The event features 15 past Major winners including Justin Rose, Bubba Watson, Sergio Garcia and Jordan Spieth, but top-ranked Brooks Koepka and a resurgent Tiger Woods skipped it.

The WGC-HSBC Champions has a purse of $10.25 million, with $1.7 million going to the winner, and is the third and final leg of the PGA Tour's Asian swing.