At 8-under China’s Haotong Li is your surprise leader at the halfway point of the 2020 PGA Championship at San Francisco’s Harding Park, but two-time defending champion Brooks Koepka is part of a six man log-jam tied for second just two shots back. Playing in early warm and windless conditions, Li fired a 65, then took a break of less than an hour before returning to the golf course for a marathon six hour practice session.
“He was on the practice green when I teed off on one, and he was on the driving range when I finished the 18,” moaned a mildly shocked 2015 PGA Champion Jason Day, whose one under 69 on Friday also positions him tied for second at 6-under coming into the weekend, along with Koepka, Tommy Fleetwood, Justin Rose, Daniel Berger, and France’s Mike Lorenzo-Vera.
Li may be atop the leaderboard but the loudest thunderbolts came from Koepka, who followed up his opening 66 with hard-fought 68, interrupted several times by visits from his physical therapist, who performed adjustments on Koepka in the middle of play during the back nine. Koepka insisted after the round that he was fine – “nothing to be worried about…a little TFL” as he off-handedly told one interviewer – and who is to argue? Both defining moments of the day’s play came from him, and they were seismic.
First, at the gargantuan 515-yard par-4 ninth, Koepka catapulted a 260-yard 5-iron out of the rough on to the green with the casual ease of ordering dinner at a restaurant. He missed the putt, but it still sent a message that he’s the strongest player in the filed and that he can call up Herculean strength when needed, at any time.
The second defining moment came at the 18. Late in the day, the weather turning cold and windy, Koepka blasted a 345 yard drive into the right fairway bunker. From there it was just a 190 yard 7-iron to seven feet for a closing birdie.
These cannon blasts were gobsmacking in light of the ad hoc medical treatments Koepka was receiving between shots. But just like Tiger Woods used to do when pressed about possible injuries, Koepka wouldn’t show an inkling of pain or retreat.
“Originally, where I really felt it was off 12 tee. It just like locked up, cramped, and I couldn’t really do anything with it. That one, the first one was all right. It definitely relieved some issue. I think the one going into 16, where he yanked on my foot…it popped and it felt like it just kind of repositioned itself, and that’s when it felt a lot better,” Koepka recalled. “My TFL is usually pretty tight on the side. It just kind of moved to the front and tightened up the front and kind of the inside and groin. It will be fine. It’s something I’m not worried about.”
How is Li going to trade uppercuts with the gigantic Koepka for 36 more holes? Even a slightly hobbled Koepka? Answer: He isn’t. This isn’t going to be a replay of Y.E. Yang versus Tiger Woods a la 2009 at Hazeltine. Li’s not Yang, and Koepka is Woods, metaphorically speaking, that is. Koepka has only hit 50% of his fairways so far (14/28) but he’s hit 75% of his greens (27/36). He also made both greenside sand saves. So rough or sand, it really hasn’t mattered to Koepka. He’s just marching along. If he puts it all together, he’ll runaway and hide, and Sunday will be a coronation, rather than a donnybrook.
“I feel very comfortable with an iron in my hand. With a driver I feel very comfortable. I feel like I’m hitting it really solid. I just need to make a few more putts,” Koepka noted.
Meanhile, when Y.E. Yang upended Woods at Hazeltine to snatch the Wanamaker Trophy and end Woods’s streak of 14 major wins as a frontrunner going into the final round, he was 37 years old, not 25, like Li is. Moreover, Yang had already gone toe-to-toe, mano-a-mano against Woods, at the 2007 HSBC Championship in Shanghai, and beaten him. So his win, while unexpected, was not a statistical oulier. Off-brand winner? Yes. Total fluke? No. And Yang has 12 world-wide professional wins, including the PGA Tour’s Honda Classic, a tournament he bagged just five months before winning the PGA Championship.
By contrast, Li may have two wins on the European Tour since joining it in 2016, but he’s best known for the antics of his mother. She became a YouTube sensation when she waded shoulder deep into a pond to fetch a putter her son had hurled into it in anger. (She came back once she found out he had snapped it in two first.)
So how can you pick a guy whose mommy hovers to beat Brooks Flipping Koepka? You can’t. No chance, not this weekend, he can hit balls on the range until 3:32 a.m., and it won’t do any good. If 2013 U.S. Open Champion Justin Rose can hang around late, he has a puncher’s chance. Jason Day has a lot of strength in his core; he could hang bash-for-bash with Koepka. (Day bludgeoned both Jordan Spieth and Whistling Straits to a record 20-under at the 2015 PGA.) And Tommy Fleetwood is both care-free enough to handle the pressure and enough of a birdie machine that he could hit the gas and go low.
But the best Haotong Li has managed on the PGA in 2020 is a T-24 at the HSBC, back in March. Since the restart, he missed the cut at the Memorial and finished T-75 at the St. Jude Classic. Like so may others that happened to find themselves atop a leaderboard early in a major, Li should be here today, but gone tomorrow. He’ll have to watch Koepka all day long, and Brooks is going to apply pressure every single shot.
But hey! If Li can’t handle Koepka, maybe his mommy can! She could chase after Koepka like she went after her son’s broken putter. She could even brandish a rolling pin or frying pan or something. I’d pay green money to see that. It would be the first time Koepka’s been dented at a PGA Championship in the last three years.