April 6, 2018 / 12:14 AM / 15 days ago

Golf: China's Li makes strong start on Masters debut

AUGUSTA, Georgia (Reuters) - Li Haotong said Augusta National is everything he expected it to be as the rising young Chinese player made a strong start to his first Masters on Thursday.

Li Haotong of China hits off the 17th tee during first round play of the 2018 Masters golf tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia, U.S., April 5, 2018. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Li made six birdies and three bogeys for a three-under 69 that left him three strokes behind leader Jordan Spieth at the first men’s major of the year.

The 22-year-old said he fell in love with the Masters through watching midnight telecasts back home as a child.

“Everything’s like amazing. It’s just like on the TV,” he said.

Li turned professional when he was 16 and won his first European Tour event at the Volvo China Open in 2016.

Li Haotong of China hits from a sand trap to the 18th green during first round play of the 2018 Masters golf tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia, U.S., April 5, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

Last year, Li became the first Chinese player to make the cut at a U.S. Open.

However, closing rounds of 82 and 84 saw him finish last of the players that made the cut, by seven strokes at 22-over-par, and he ended up 38 shots behind winner Brooks Koepka.

“The U.S. Open was my first major ever in my whole career,” Li said. “I got a lot of experience from there. I’ve improved a lot since last year. Got a lot of confidence from there.

Lia Haotong Li of China looks at his putt on the 18th hole during first round play of the 2018 Masters golf tournament at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia, U.S., April 5, 2018. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

“I think I just need to keep doing what I’m doing now. I think one day I will become a good player,” he said with a smile.

Li followed up the Erin Hills experience with a spectacular final-round 63 to finish third at the 2017 British Open at Royal Birkdale to clinch a berth in this year’s Masters.

This year he won the Dubai Desert Classic in a duel with Rory McIlroy to further fuel hopes that he could join golf’s elite and ignite interest in the game in China.

The Dubai win might also be a good omen for the Shanghai resident as the two previous winners — Danny Willett and Sergio Garcia — went on to win the Masters.

“Well, at least it’s a good sign for myself, and hopefully I can join them,” he said.

Li’s idol, Tiger Woods, has taken notice.

“Li is now up there, and I think it’s only a matter of time before you have more professional players from China playing in this event,” Woods told reporters.

Editing by Peter Rutherford

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