Li Haotong China

China’s Li Haotong bests Rory to surge up world rankings, as Marbury confirms retirement

Here is a summary of this week’s China Sports column for SupChina, which you can read in full here

“Li Who?” goes head-to-head with Rory McIlroy – and beats him

Remember a few years ago when a 14-year-old amateur from China by the name of Guan Tianlang became the youngest golfer in history to make the cut at the Masters – even after a controversial one-stroke penalty for slow play? Headlines promptly declared that China was poised to take over the world of golf.

Well, that hasn’t quite happened — yet.

But take a look at the world’s Top 50 male golfers and you’ll see another Chinese name: Li Haotong, who, at No. 32, has achieved easily the highest-ever ranking for a Chinese golfer, eclipsing Chinese veteran Liang Wenchong‘s best mark of No. 57 from 2010.

What’s more, Li is only 22, the youngest on that entire Top 50 list. His ascent came after a stunning performance last week at the Omega Dubai Desert Classic, where he played alongside four-time major winner Rory McIlroy in the final pairing on both Saturday and Sunday and beat him to the title by a stroke, despite trailing by two shots with eight holes to play.

And while some commentators would have you believe that McIlroy threw away what would have been his 23rd professional title, this tournament was as much Li’s win as McIlroy’s loss. With Rory finishing birdie-birdie, the Northern Irishman said afterwards he “made [Li] win it”.

Li’s winning score was 23-under-par, a tournament record, and while it would be foolish to start calling him China’s Tiger Woods, it’s interesting to note that the 30 birdies Li shot in the course of the week surpassed this tournament’s previous mark of 27 — set by Tiger in 2001.

Li has quickly established himself as a clutch player, closing with a round of 64 to win the 2016 Volvo China Open, a final round of 63 to jump into third place at The Open Championship last summer, and then four birdies in the final six holes in Dubai to secure his latest triumph.

Despite these moments, though, Li until recently was probably best known for a viral moment (see video clip above) at last year’s French Open, when he tossed his broken putter into a pond, only to see his mother — unaware that the club was beyond repair — wade into the dirty water to retrieve it.

Now, though, players on the Tour will have taken notice of the youngster for other reasons. More importantly, Li himself now knows that he belongs at the top level.

Far from becoming an overnight sensation, Li’s rise has been fairly steady so far, after turning pro at age 17. He won three times on the inaugural PGA Tour China Series in 2014, winning the Order of Merit and qualifying to play on the second-tier Tour in the US, before switching to the European Tour last year.

And he has what it takes to be a star.

He’s young, tall, funny, good-looking, speaks great English — and the fact that he’s Chinese is, from a global marketing perspective, pure gold. He’s already been signed by the likes of Mercedes, Rolex and Titleist.

He’s also developed into exactly the kind of player that Nike imagined he could be when they added him to its roster in June 2013, admitting him to a small group of golfers that, ironically, included both Woods and McIlroy.

And in another twist of fate that would make Alanis Morissette proud, Li and Nike parted ways just weeks before his win in Dubai, with Li decked out in Adidas clothing since the turn of the year (though that partnership has yet to become official).

But Li is not alone – China’s young golfers are now a force to be reckoned with. Head over to SupChina to read about the wave of teenage prodigies who will continue to mature in the years to come, potentially marking a permanent change in the demographics of golf at the top level.

Marbury calls it quits after eight years in China

As this column was going to press, Stephon Marbury confirmed to ESPN that he will retire from basketball at the end of the current CBA season, meaning his final game could come on February 11, just a week shy of his 41st birthday. Last year, Marbury announced he wanted to make a comeback in the NBA, where he played for 13 seasons prior to another eight in China, but that now seems unlikely.

Last week, Marbury had intimated online that he was ready for the next chapter, telling ESPN that he’s “at peace” with the decision to retire, though adding that he will keep in shape “just in case” an NBA team comes calling.

He leaves China with three CBA championships, six All-Star appearances (to add to his two NBA All-Star nods), a statue erected in his honor in the Chinese capital, as well as a biopic about himself, starring himself. His transformation from cancerous locker room presence in the NBA to model teammate and leader in the CBA has been well documented, and though his lack of top-level numbers – or NBA rings – will count against him in the Hall of Fame argument, some – including, of course, Marbury himself – are making the case that his efforts to grow the game globally should see him make it.

Click here to read the full version of this week’s column, which also has links to stories on the NBA’s annual Chinese New Year celebration, Klay Thompson and his amusing ANTA commercial, the latest on the Cedric Bakambu transfer saga, China’s preparations for the Pyeongchang Olympic Games, and an unusual story about two friends in China feeding the Philadelphia Eagles‘ dog mask craze.
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