Sixty-one holes into the 146th Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, Haotong Li was nowhere near contention and probably just craving a top-25 finish.
How things can change quickly.
Li birdied seven of his last 11 holes, including his final four, Sunday to fire a final-round 7-under 63. That gives Li the 32nd round of 63 in major championship history. His timing is unfortunate, as Li would’ve tied a major low if not for Branden Grace breaking the record with a 62 on Saturday.
But from 1 over and scraping for a top 25 to 6 under and solo third in a matter of 11 holes?
Li’s not complaining. In fact, he could hardly fathom what he’d done.
“Can’t believe in the final round I (made) so many birdies,” Li said.
Haotong Li is just 21 years old, but this sort of firepower is no surprise. The Chinese star is already a European Tour winner (2016 Volvo China Open) and has three other top-3 finishes on the circuit.
His form of late has been a bit up and down, but Li hasn’t missed a cut since April and posted solo third and T-7 finishes in the stretch since his last early exit.
A second-round 73 at Royal Birkdale (after opening in 69) quelled the odds that Li would produce another top 10 at the Open, and a follow-up 69 in benign conditions further seemed to confirm that.
Heck, with seven straight pars to start Sunday, Li was further heading toward a solid, if unspectacular, finish.
That’s when everything changed.
Li birdied Nos. 8 and 9 to move back to 1 under and tacked on another at the 12th.
Then his amazing closing kick. Li rolled in birdies at Nos. 15, 16 and 17. He knocked it to 20 feet at the last and had a chance at 63.
At that point, Li felt the pressure come on.
“Over that putt, I was quite nervous,” Li said.
But Li would drain it for four consecutive birdies to finish.
Li is in the clubhouse at 6-under 274. He started the day 12 shots back, but was within two after Jordan Spieth bogeyed three of his first four holes.
With Spieth and Matt Kuchar ahead of that 6-under number with final rounds in progress on a friendly Royal Birkdale layout, the chances 6 under could lead to a playoff or win are doubtful.
But it’s not impossible. Is Li pondering that potential opportunity?
Not really, he’s just happy if he can stay in solo third.
“I just wish I can finish top 4,” Li said. “That’s good enough for me.”
So was that 63. If you didn’t know Haotong Li had a bright future before, now you do.