Haotong Li clearly doesn’t like talking about his mum wading into a muddy pond to retrieve his putter after the Chinese player had hurled it away in a fit of pique during the French Open last month. That’s probably because her efforts – it was a waste of time as the club had been snapped – merely attracted attention to the incident and landed him with a fine from the European Tour.
Happily for him, no-one will really be interested in that any more. With the best score of the day – a sensational seven-under-par 63 – the 21-year-old secured third spot in the 146th Open Championship. It was the best effort by an Asian player in this event since Taiwan’s Mr Lu finished second behind Lee Trevino at the same venue in 1971.
“It’s kind of a dream come true since I started playing golf,” said Li of his eye-catching performance, having used the Web.com Tour, the PGA Tour’s feeder circuit to cut his teeth in the paid ranks before turning his attention to the European Tour, where he won the Volvo China Open last year.
Li, who is coached by Jamie Gough, the younger brother of former Scotland defender Richard, had started the final round 12 shots behind Jordan Spieth. For a spell, though, after his own closing effort, which was capped by four birdies on the spin to finish, coupled with Spieth’s stuttering start, it looked as though he could have got into a play-off.
“Not really,” replied Li to being asked if he believed that he could shoot such a score on the last day on his Open Championship debut. “But, for some reason, since hole No 8 (he’d opened with seven straight pars), I just started holing everything. So, I was quite happy out there.”
Li’s clubhouse score was in Rory McIlroy’s sights as he eagled the 17th but failed to make the birdie he needed at the last to draw level with the Chinese player. In the end, McIlroy closed with a 67 to tie fourth place with newly-crowned Scottish Open champion Rafa Cabrera Bello, inset.
McIlroy, pictured left, would certainly have taken that after covering his first six holes on Thursday in five over par. But, at the same time, he was left to rue dropping four shots around the turn on Saturday and then failing to make a birdie until the ninth in his final circuit.
“It was a step in the right direction, I guess,” said McIlroy, referring to the fact he’d missed three cuts in four events coming into this one, including both the Irish Open and the Scottish Open. “Looking at what happened in the last few weeks, it is obviously a lot better. But, as soon as I started off and I saw what Haotong finished at, that was my target. I wanted to get level with him, if not beat him. I didn’t quite get there. It’s hard whenever you feel like you’ve had a chance to win a major and you’re not quite there, so it’s disappointing. But, at the same time I have to take the positives, and I’m looking forward to the next few weeks.”
Looking ahead to the season’s final major, he added: “The PGA is only three weeks away. So I’m happy that’s coming quite quickly on the back of this. The game is in much better shape than it was heading into this week. So I’m happy with that. I wish I could have had that start back, obviously. But these things happen and I’m just proud of how I held it together and battled. But I feel like with the way my game is I’ll definitely have a great chance at Akron (the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational) and the PGA.”