Li building Masters momentum

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File photo of Li Haotong. [Xinhua]

Li Haotong's appearance at this week's Masters will be the 25th time a Chinese golfer has teed off in a major championship.

The 23-year-old from Hunan is determined to make it count.

Li's second start at Augusta National will be his ninth major since his debut at the 2017 US Open, and hopes are rising he is maturing into a future champion.

Li's results at the game's most prestigious tournaments have been a mixed bag to date, with a stunning third-place finish at the 2017 British Open and a tie for 16th at last year's US Open offset by a missed cut at the 2017 PGA Championship and a withdrawal during the second round of the same event last year.

Predicting how the world No 39 will fare this week is no easy task, but after last year's encouraging Masters debut, he's primed for his return to Augusta.

"I love the course and I love everything about the tournament," said Li, who will become the first player from China to rack up multiple appearances at the Masters. "It is an amazing place, an amazing tournament."

Zhang Lianwei, Liang Wenchong and amateurs Guan Tianlang, Jin Cheng and Lin Yuxin have all had one Masters appearance.

Describing how he felt as he stood on the first tee last year with former champion Fred Couples and Chile's Joaquin Niemann, Li said there were some butterflies.

"It's quite unreal for myself to be here, to play golf here. It's such a big honor," he said at the time.

He managed to keep the nerves in check long enough to open with a 69 before subsequent rounds of 76, 72 and 72 saw him slip out of contention and finish 16 shots off Patrick Reed's winning total.

Still, that experience should stand him in good stead this time as he gets better at handling the pressure of a major.

This marks the second straight year Li has been eligible to play in all four majors. He played in three in 2017, missing the Masters.

It's not unreasonable to imagine he could one day be a guaranteed starter by earning the lifetime exemption that comes with being a Masters champion.

His smooth and rapid progress through the ranks of the PGA Tour Series-China, the Tour and now the European Tour point to him making that next step.

"It is my favorite tournament, and I am quite lucky to have the chance to play it," said Li, who has just completed a series of North American tournaments.

Over the past five weeks, he has played in the World Golf Championships-Mexico Championship (tied for 19th), the Arnold Palmer Invitational and The Players Championship (missed both cuts), the World Golf Championships-Dell Match Play (tied for ninth) and the Valero Texas Open (tied for 52nd).

Li is the only Chinese in this week's field, but at June's US Open at Pebble Beach in California he can expect to play alongside some compatriots.

Andy Zhang, Dou Zecheng, Zhang Xinjun and Yuan Yechun, all currently playing the Tour, head a queue of Chinese hoping to qualify for the June major, while PGA Tour Series-China player Jin Cheng and Guan, still an amateur and now playing for the University of Arizona, are also expected to stake a claim.

Three of those hopefuls boast previous major experience: Zhang as the youngest player to ever compete in a US Open (2012, when he was 14), Guan as a 14-year-old at the 2013 Masters and Jin at the 2016 Masters.

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