SHANGHAI – In one year, Li Hao Tong has gone from being a contender in the HSBC Champions to a superhero.
At least on the stage.
One tradition of this World Golf Championship, billed as "Asia's majors," is for the top stars to gather in downtown Shanghai for a photo opportunity showing off the culture. A year ago, the best players took part in a Chinese drum ceremony on a hotel rooftop in the Bund district. The theme this year was "superheroes" descending on Shanghai. Henrik Stenson was "The Machine." Bubba Watson was "The Magician." Dustin Johnson was "The Heat."
And tournament organizers also brought along the 21-year-old Li. He was "The Force."
Tall and wiry, rarely without that contagious smile, Li doesn't look the part. As for his exploits on the golf course, he's getting there.
"It's interesting that I've been named as 'The Force,'" Li said with a laugh. "On the other hand, it's an honor to be the first Chinese player to be participating in the WGC-HSBC Champions opening ceremony. I wish to do better, keep doing better continuously, and hopefully build up the image of China golfers."
He appears headed in that direction.
Li was one shot out of the lead going into the final round at Sheshan International last year before closing with a 72 to tie for seventh with Jordan Spieth, the highest finish ever by a Chinese player in a World Golf Championship or PGA Tour event.
He was playing on the Web.com Tour early last year when he came home and won the Volvo China Open on the European Tour, securing a two-year membership. That victory also was enough to qualify for the Olympics in Rio.
Li returned to the European Tour and posted a pair of top-20 finishes, moving him up to No. 42 in the Race to Dubai.
Asked about being in such elite company, Li raised his eyebrows and said, "Elite company. What does this mean?" And then he broke into laughter, as he so often does. He then explained that being in the company of such great players — Rickie Fowler and defending champion Russell Knox were on stage with him Tuesday night — was not going to be good enough for him to feel satisfied.
"Still a long way to go," he said. "So I think I just try my best. I think just keep working hard and one day I will be there for sure. So let's see."
It could be quite the test at Sheshan International. After a summer of extraordinary heat, the course was drenched with 5 inches of rain on the weekend, and then the pro-am was cut short Wednesday with another deluge. More rain is in the forecast Thursday.
The field is the strongest ever for the HSBC Champions with 40 of the top 50 in the world, including all four major champions for the first time since 2011.
Li practically grew up with this event, dating to when it was a European Tour stop when it began in 2005 through its transition to a WGC in 2009. He took part in the HSBC junior program and received an exemption at age 19. He closed with a 67 and tied Spieth and Jimmy Walker in 35th place.
"The difficulty level to win a WGC-HSBC Champions is basically equal to all the four majors because they all have the best lineup," Li said.
He used to live in Howey-in-the-Hills, a tiny town outside Orlando, Florida, but since has moved.
"Too crowded," he said with another laugh.
His sister lives in Rancho Cucamonga, so he stays with her when his schedule brings him to the U.S. He hopes to get a few sponsor exemptions on the PGA Tour this year and earn enough FedEx Cup points to at least have a shot at the Web.com Tour Finals, his best path to a PGA Tour card. He still is exempt on the European Tour.
"I think this is a good way to go," he said. "So let's see."