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Li in race against time to reach Mexican WGC showcase

By CHUAH CHOO CHIANG | China Daily | Updated: 2020-02-10 08:49
China's Li Haotong in action at the Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne Golf Course. The 24-year-old missed the cut over the weekend at a tournament in Geelong, Australia. GETTY IMAGES

Li Haotong has some climbing to do if he is to qualify for this month's World Golf Championships-Mexico Championship.

The Chinese No 1 will need to haul himself back into the world's top 50 by Feb 17 or crack the top 10 of the European Tour's Race to Dubai rankings to secure a third appearance at Club de Golf Chapultepec where he finished tied for 19th last year.

At the time of writing, Li was ranked 79th in the world and 69th in the Race to Dubai rankings, but didn't do his cause any good by missing the cut at the ISPS Handa Vic Open in Geelong, Australia over the weekend.

The $10.5 million WGC-Mexico Championship at Chapultepec in Mexico City will be the first World Golf Championships of the new decade, and while no Asian golfer has ever lifted the trophy, recent editions have witnessed some of the region's leading lights delivering standout performances.

In 2018, young Indian Shubhankar Sharma stunned the golfing world when he led after the second and third rounds before finishing tied-ninth with a closing 74 in the company of American legend Phil Mickelson, who won the tournament after a playoff against Justin Thomas.

Thai ace Kiradech Aphibarnrat crept into the top five to finish as the highest-placed Asian, thanks to a closing 65. The big-hitting Thai showed his liking once more for the tree-lined Chapultepec layout by finishing a creditable third, some 12 months after he produced three 68s and a 69 on the same course.

The Chinese mainland's Li, Chinese Taipei's CT Pan, Japan's Hideki Matsuyama, and South Korea's rising stars Im Sung-jae and An Byeong-hun all did Asia proud in an Ernie Els-led International Team which came up agonizingly short to upsetting a Tiger Woods-powered United States side in the Presidents Cup in December.

While the narrow 16-14 defeat was a bitter pill to swallow, the performances of the Asian players at Royal Melbourne were another timely reminder of the growing strength of the continent's golf scene.

Interestingly, three of the International Team members-Adam Scott, Cameron Smith and Marc Leishman-have gone on to taste individual wins in the immediate aftermath of Royal Melbourne, which An believes is due to the Presidents Cup.

"It was incredible to see Cam win (the Sony Open in Hawaii). Hopefully I can break through and win one day," said An.

"Our (International Team) group chat has been going crazy of late. Hopefully someone else can step up, hopefully me or Sung-jae (Im) or someone else. It shows the Presidents Cup has helped us. The group chat is still running and it's great."

Matsuyama remains Asia's only winner in the World Golf Championships which was launched in 1999 with a vision to gather the world's elite players from the various international tours four times a year.

The 27-year-old broke through at the 2016 WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai and followed up with another stellar victory in the 2017 WGC-FedEx St Jude Invitational.

Often a stoic figure during the heat of battle, Matsuyama showed a fiery side to his game en route to a 2-1-1 record in the Presidents Cup, securing two wins in the fourball sessions with Pan. He settled for a tie with Tony Finau in the singles.

Nearly three years on since his last win, much is expected of Matsuyama in 2020 as he seeks to end his victory drought.

With top-25 finishes in Mexico in 2017 and 2019, and at a course which demands precision, the Japanese ace is tipped to challenge in Chapultepec.

Korea's Im continues to win new fans with his imperious golf, which is built on the foundation of a rock-solid iron game.

The 21-year-old, who was the PGA's 2019 Rookie of the Year, delivered 3.5 points for the International Team which included a 4&3 drubbing of reigning US Open champion Gary Woodland. Woods sought out the Korean to congratulate him after the showdown.

Im's progress will be closely watched as he makes his debut in the WGC-Mexico Championship. The youngster from Jeju Island has featured in one WGC previously, finishing T11 at the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai last November.

Mexico's Abraham Ancer, who played with Im in Australia, said: "We call him 'the weapon'. He is an unbelievable golfer. The guy just does not miss. He's so, so good at what he does."

Through his rapid rise on the Asian Tour, where he won the order of merit in 2019, 24-year-old Jazz Janewattananond will go head-to-head with the stars in Mexico for the first time. Coached by Pete Cowen, the baby-faced Thai could well be a dark horse.

He surprised many with a fantastic run at the PGA Championship last year before finishing T14 and matched that result in his WGCHSBC Champions debut in November. He knows he still has plenty of work to do to reach the next level.

"I'm still trying to gauge myself to see how much I need to improve. These guys are so good," said Janewattananond. "I'm not there yet but I know what I need to work on with Pete to get my game ready to compete against these guys."

The writer is a senior director of communications for the PGA Tour and is based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

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