PGA leader Li: A man of rescued putters and TikTok bans

© Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Art Spander

SAN FRANCISCO — He wears a hat promoting a messaging service that President Trump is determined to ban. He once flung a putter into a lake in France, and his mother retrieved it, only to discover the club was broken.

Now in something completely unrelated, other than it involves golf, Haotong Li has the second round lead of the 102nd PGA Championship at Harding Park.

He thus could become the first Chinese golfer to win a major. But let us not get too far ahead. “Long way to go,” Li himself reminded us after his 5-under par 65 Friday.

In golf, time is relative, if distance is not. One day can be forever if it stands before you and victory. So yes, two rounds may seem like a lifetime, or an instant.

Li just turned 25, which literally is half as old as Phil Mickelson — who, playing younger than springtime on a fine San Francisco afternoon, had a 1-under 69 to make the cut on the line at 141.

For Li, the 65 gave him a 36-hole score of 132, two strokes ahead of even players tied for second at 134 including Tommy Fleetwood, the Englishman, who had a 64, and first-day leader Jason Day, who had a 63.

No question Haotong can play with the big boys. He had seven birdies over the last 11 holes and a 63 in the final round of the 2017 British Open at Royal Birkdale, the one won by Jordan Spieth — remember him?

Still, unless you win a major (which he very well could do), your reputation seems constructed on the incidental stuff.

Such as Li’s sponsor, WeChat, the messaging service owned by Tencent, which also owns TikTok, the firm the American president wants to keep from U.S. borders.

As you might imagine, Li shrugs off questions. “We’re only talking about the game,” he said. Hey, the old Oakland Raiders taught the world’s athletes well.

It was difficult for Li to avoid what occurred during the 2017 French Open. He got frustrated after missing a putt at the par-3 7th, conveniently located next to a pond. You’re supposed to stay under control, but Li is young, and when they were young even future legends such as Bobby Jones and Arnold Palmer got visibly angry. In fact, Arnie’s dad, Deacon Palmer, dragged him off a course as punishment.

Where Li’s father was during the great pond incident is uncertain, but his mom was present and accounted for. She rolled up her skirt, plunged into the reeds and rescued the putter—which, oops, turned out to be broken.

Television and the British tabloids didn’t miss a thing. Nor did the other entrants in the French Open, a European Tour event.

“I don’t think I’ll ever see a player’s mum trying to rescue a snapped putter again,” tweeted Tyrrell Hatton, the English pro.

There are no water hazards at Harding, but there is plenty of thick rough — and, since this not only is a tournament that’s been held for more than a century, and amid this pandemic the first major held since last July, plenty of pressure.

Li has made only one bogey in two rounds. “Yeah,” he explained, “I’ve been pretty much in the right spot.”

His golf is beautiful. So is his English. He lived for a while in Florida, while working on his game, and he has a sister in Rancho Cucamonga, in southern California. He’s very much a citizen of the world.

Li was inactive when golf everywhere went stagnant. Now he’s very active.

“I didn’t even think I could play like this, this week,” he said, “especially like you said, missing the cut at the Memorial. Probably helped clear my mind a little bit this week.”