China's Li lives the dream at 'just like on TV' Masters

by Jim SLATER

Augusta (United States) (AFP) - China's Li Haotong stayed up all night to watch the Masters as a boy in Shanghai, analyzing famed Augusta National with dreams of someday competing in the legendary major golf showdown.

That day came Thursday, when the 22-year-old Asian star fired a three-under par 69 to grab a share of fourth place after the first round of his Masters debut.

"It's kind of like a dream come true," Li said. "I did learn a lot from TV, which is unreal."

Li's epic achievements include placing third at last year's British Open, the best Chinese result at any men's major, and outdueling Rory McIlroy to win this year's Dubai Desert Classic to become China's man to crack the world golf rankings top 50.

"Take a lot of confidence from (beating) Rory that week," Li said. "I've been struggling a little bit on my putting. I've been working a lot on that and today I made a lot of par saves, par putts. So I just have to keep going."

When he came to Augusta National and saw the Masters layout in person for the first time last week, Li was overjoyed to find it familiar.

"Everything's like amazing. It's just like on the TV," Li said.

"I just watched on TV all the time. Never miss once on TV for the Masters. It's quite unreal for myself to be here, play golf here. It's such a big honor."

Li definitely learned his lessons about Amen Corner, the 11th, 12th and 13th holes so nicknamed because they often decide the fate of Masters hopefuls.

Li birdied all three holes in his first competitive round at Augusta National, a rare feat even with the effort bookended by bogeys at 10 and 14.

"Quite lucky," Li said. "On the 10th hole, I made a lovely bogey and literally almost said 'Amen' down there.

"My first round was quite solid. I made a lot of putts. I wanted to stay patient and make some putts.

"Thought I'd be nervous on the first tee but I was all right. I'm happy to have such a great opening round."

Tiger Woods, the center of attention this week with his comeback from back injury and spinal fusion, says Li is only the vanguard of a vast Chinese talent wave that's Masters bound.

"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 said.

Li played his first major at last year's US Open, sharing 68th.

"I've improved a lot since the US Open," Li said. "Got a lot of confidence from there. I just need to keep doing what I'm doing now. I think one day I'll become a good player."