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Impressive Li could yet prove to be Ireland's Trump card

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Haotong Li plays his shot from the 14th tee during the second round of the US PGA Championship yesterday as he surged into an early lead thanks to a superb 65. Photo: USA TODAY Sports

Haotong Li plays his shot from the 14th tee during the second round of the US PGA Championship yesterday as he surged into an early lead thanks to a superb 65. Photo: USA TODAY Sports

USA TODAY Sports

Haotong Li plays his shot from the 14th tee during the second round of the US PGA Championship yesterday as he surged into an early lead thanks to a superb 65. Photo: USA TODAY Sports

Irish golf could claim a sliver of the halfway lead in the PGA Championship as Chinese star Haotong Li fired a second-round 65 to set the early pace at TPC Harding Park.

The 25-year old, who became the first Chinese player to make the Presidents Cup team last year, led by two shots from England's Tommy Fleetwood, who made seven birdies and a bogey in an impressive, six-under 64 to jump from 48th to second.

"I've been pretty much hitting in all the right spots," said Li, sporting a WeChat logo on his cap that was sure to infuriate President Donald Trump, who yesterday issued executive orders that would ban the social media apps WeChat and TikTok from operating in the US if they are not sold by their Chinese-owned parent companies within 45 days.

"Even if I miss the green, I still got a chance to up-and-down. I think the key on this course, you just need to hit as many fairways as you can, and especially your putting and short game is quite important," Li said.

As for the Irish connection, the Chinese star was first spotted by Irish PGA professional Paul McLoughlin when he was director of golf at the Lake Malaren resort near Shanghai.

"I helped him when he was starting out and the backing he got from Lake Malaren was phenomenal," the Howth native said of a player who is now managed by the same firm that looks after Tiger Woods.

"I even travelled to Fota Island with him when he got an invitation to play in the Irish Open at the age of 17 (in 2014) and we became friends."

Meteoric

While his recent form has been poor, Li's rise has been meteoric and he hasn't forgotten the help he got from McLoughlin at Lake Malaren as he fielded questions in the San Francisco sunshine last night.

"Yeah, they helped me a lot, especially when I first turned pro, the first couple of years," said the man who started out caddying for his father, a golf fanatic who owned a car dealership in Hunan.

"If one day you take me down, I'll quit and you can play," Li's father said. "One-and-a-half years later, I beat him and he quit," Li revealed.

He turned professional at 16, going on to win the Volvo China Open in 2016, before holding off Rory McIlroy to win the Dubai Desert Classic two years ago to move to a career-high of 32nd in the world.

He's since fallen to 114th but after opening with a three-under 67 to lie 12th overnight, the gangling Shanghai resident was superb in benign, early conditions.

He birdied the first two holes, then birdied the fifth and ninth to turn in 31, picked off another birdie at the par-five 10th to move to eight-under and then parred his way home.

He's not thinking of becoming China's first Major winner just yet, however, and his famously playful sense of humour came through in the press conference afterwards.

"Well, still got two rounds left," he said. "Long way to go. Just want to play my best. If it happens, it happens." Pressed to explain what it all might mean should he win tomorrow, he said: "Well, I don't even know what I'm going to do. Just play golf, mate."

Fleetwood made four birdies on the back nine to turn in 31 and get to four-under before going on to make three birdies and a bogey on the homeward nine to close to within two strokes of Li on six-under.

Of the other early starters, American Cameron Champ matched Fleetwood's 64 - the lowest score of the week so far - to finish five under alongside Brendon Todd and England's Paul Casey, who added a 67 to his opening 68.

Graeme McDowell needed a good round to make the weekend after opening with a two-over 72. But he struggled from the tee en route to a 74 that left him five shots outside the projected cut mark on six-over.

There was better news for Scotland's Robert McIntyre, 22, who has Waterford caddie Greg Milne on his bag. The Oban native followed his opening 73 with a 67, brilliantly getting up and down from greenside rough at the ninth for a closing par to dip under the cut line at level-par.

Shane Lowry and Rory McIlroy, tied 20th and 48th overnight after opening with a 68 and 70 respectively, were among the late starters. The former began well thanks to birdies at the first and fifth, before bogeying the eighth to be three-under approaching the turn, while McIlroy was va mixed bag over his opening nine.

Having birdied the first, the Holywood ace went on to record two bogeys before notching birdies on seven and eight to reach one-under.

Playing partner Tiger Woods, who opened with a 68, was on one-under for the tournament after eight holes having bogeyed the third. Jason Day, meanwhile, had reached six-under after 12.

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