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SHANGHAI – Haotong Li no longer feels the pressure of playing before a home crowd. He enjoyed just about every minute Thursday, and he gave them plenty to cheer with an 8-under 64 for a one-shot lead in the WGC-HSBC Champions.
Li opened with two birdies, finished the back nine with two birdies and after his lone mistake on the par-4 first hole at Sheshan International, he responded with a 4-iron that set up an eagle and led to the loudest cheer of a calm afternoon.
”Obviously, it would be great joy for Chinese golfers and Chinese golf fans to have a Chinese player winning a WGC-HSBC Champions here in China,” Li said. ”But for the next three days, anything could happen.”
He was one shot ahead of Victor Perez of France.
Among those just two shots behind were defending champion Xander Schauffele and Adam Scott, who both stumbled at the end.
Scott hit a thin shot out of a fairway bunker on No. 9 into the water right of the green and he had to get up-and-down to salvage bogey for his 66. Schauffele, sick most of the week and still hoarse, had a wedge to the par-5 eighth that stayed on the upper shelf, leading to a three-putt bogey.
Sungjae Im and Matt Fitzpatrick also were at 66.
Rory McIlroy had three bogeys on the back nine and was going nowhere at even par until he ran off four straight birdies on the front and got in the mix quick with a 67.
”The last few tournaments I’ve played, I’ve had a bad opening round and then been trying to play catch up,” McIlroy said. ”At least now, I’m right in the thick of things from the start, which is a better place to be.”
The WGC-HSBC Champions is the final event before Tiger Woods and Ernie Els make their wild-card picks for the Presidents Cup, and Im certainly didn’t hurt his chances with another good start.
Neither did Corey Conners of Canada, who was near the top of the leaderboard for most of the day. He finished with a bogey for a 67. Even so, the Canadian is coming off solid weeks in South Korea and Japan, and he hopes another good one in China is enough to get the attention of Els for the International team that goes to Royal Melbourne in December.
”It’s been on my mind,” Conners said. ”I want to make it as difficult as possible for him not to think of me.”
Phil Mickelson, in danger of falling out of the top 50 for the first time in nearly 26 years, opened with a 71 and was in the middle of the pack. Sheshan International is in prime condition with thick rough and firm fairways and greens. It’s a stronger test than in recent years, though the calm conditions allowed for so many low scores.
Nearly one-third of the field broke 70.
”No wind today is giving a false idea of how tough the course is,” Scott said.
It was plenty tough for Hideki Matsuyama, who won here in 2016 and is coming off a runner-up finish to Tiger Woods last week in the Zozo Championship in Japan. He managed only two birdies, finished with a double bogey and shot 75, ending a streak of six straight rounds in the 60s.
Li didn’t feel as though he was in great form coming into this WGC, but his comfort level – on the course and in front of the fans – was evident.
He practically grew up with the HSBC Champions, from participating in its successful junior program to having a chance to win as a 20-year-old in 2015. He thought the tournament was too big for him to win back then. That’s not the case any more for Li, who already has two European Tour victories and will be playing in the Presidents Cup for the first time.
”It’s always good to have a feeling that you know that you are leading, especially in the first two days,” Li said. ”But what I only want right now is to have a shot at the title on the final nine holes Sunday.”