Li Haotong was still smiling, even if others were feeling his pain.
One minute he was taking advantage of a big break on a shot into the trees to make birdie and regain the lead on the back nine in the third round of the PGA Championship.
The next he was looking up into another tree, wondering if his luck had run out.
The first Chinese player to lead a men’s major stumbled down the stretch Saturday after hitting a ball into a tree on the 13th hole and never finding it. Li made double bogey and added two more bogeys coming in for a 3-over 73 that left him four shots back.
Now he’ll have to come from well behind in a pack of players in Sunday’s final round if he wants to add the title of first Chinese player to win a men’s major to his resume at Harding Park.
It wasn’t enough to wipe the smile on the face of the 25-year-old, who has a reputation among his fellow players — Phil Mickelson in particular — as one of the funniest guys on tour. But it was a major championship wake-up call for a player who plays mainly on the European Tour and hasn’t proven he can win yet at the highest levels of golf.
The day before — after Li had shot a 65 to take the midway lead — he was asked how he would react on the weekend to the fact he was on top of the leaderboard in a major.
“I don’t even know what I’m going to do,” Li said. “Just play golf, mate.”
That worked out well for most of a late afternoon in San Francisco, where the fog came rolling in and the breeze was chilly. Li was steady if nothing else, with a par and a birdie over the first 11 holes to keep a share of the lead.
Then he hit a tee shot way right into the towering cypress trees on the par-4 12th, only to see it hit off a tree and bounce dead left back to the edge of the fairway. Li took advantage of the break, hitting a shot up and then knocking a 20-footer in from off the green to take the outright lead once again.
Another wayward drive to the right on the next hole didn’t get so lucky. It likely stuck up in a cypress tree and after his allotted time to look, Li was given a golf cart for a lonely drive back to the tee.
He ended up making a double bogey, then compounded his problems with a wayward drive on the next hole that ended up deep in the left rough for another bogey. Li would go on to make another bogey on the driveable 16th hole from the fairway with a wedge in his hands before finishing with a pair of pars.
The 73 he signed for didn’t look all that bad for a major championship, but on a day when 45 of 79 players broke par it quickly knocked Li down the leaderboard. He’s in a tie for 13th with four other players.
That means he won’t be the centre of attention on Sunday like he might have been. But it also means he has a lot of catching up to do, with a lot of players between him and the lead.
Mickelson said on the CBS broadcast that he thinks Li is a funny guy with a lot of game. To be known as a major champion, though, there’s work to be done.