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Li looking for Memphis liftoff

China Daily | Updated: 2020-07-30 10:05
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Chinese ace bidding to get back in the birdies against star-studded field

China's Li Haotong will join a strong lineup of Asian stars at the World Golf Championships-FedEx St. Jude Invitational starting on Thursday.

Two weeks ago, Li missed the cut at the Memorial Tournament in his first event back following golf's hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, with no cut at TPC Southwind in Memphis, Tennessee, this week, the talented Chinese star is tipped to freewheel his game and challenge for honors against the likes of defending champion Brooks Koepka, current FedExCup No 1 Justin Thomas and new world No 1 Jon Rahm.

It will be Li's third appearance at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational following finishes of tied-39th and tied-20th in 2018 and 2019 respectively. In 13 career appearances in the WGC series, he has two top-10 finishes.

During the enforced break, Li put in plenty of hours lifting weights in a bid to add extra power to his game. He hopes that exertion will start bearing fruit in Memphis.

Chinese Taipei's CT Pan will also be a man on a mission as he seeks a strong showing to improve his current 176th position in the FedExCup standings. With three weeks remaining for players to qualify for the FedExCup Playoffs, which is limited to the top 125 players, Pan knows he needs some strong finishes to extend his season.

The Presidents Cup International Team member has a best finish of tied-44th, at the Memorial, in six starts since competition resumed last month. He finished joint 48th in Memphis last year.

Among the Asian stars gathered at TPC Southwind is South Korea's Im Sung-jae. The 23-year-old standout was one of the hottest golfers on the planet prior to the shutdown thanks to a victory at the Honda Classic and a third-place finish at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.

However, aside from a tie for 10th at the Charles Schwab Challenge last month, Im has struggled since the restart, missing two cuts and finishing at the wrong end of leaderboards in three other starts.

Im has ceded top spot in the Fed-ExCup standings and enters this week's $10.5 million showpiece at TPC Southwind in third place behind leader Thomas and second-ranked Webb Simpson.

Im's lull somewhat mirrors a lean spell being experienced by Asia's brightest stars on the PGA Tour. In seven tournaments since the restart, there has been just one other notable Asian finish-by China's Zhang Xinjun, who came in equal-10th at the Memorial. Zhang is not in this week's field.

With the FedExCup Playoffs looming, Im and company are hoping to turn their fortunes around. "It's starting to get better," said Im, the 2019 PGA Tour Rookie of the Year.

Before the season resumed, Im was determined to challenge and become Asia's first winner of the FedExCup, which comes with a cool $15 million top prize. "I would, of course, like to win the FedExCup but there are so many strong competitors on the PGA Tour. If I were to win, I don't think I could even put into words what it would mean to me."

Thailand's Jazz Janewattananond, who has based himself in Orlando, Florida, since March, is looking forward to a debut appearance in Memphis. Despite missing the cut in his last four PGA Tour starts, the 24-year-old is keeping his head up.

"You're playing against the best in the world and you put yourself there. It's good gauging yourself and knowing how much more to improve and how far I'm away from them," said Jazz, the reigning Asian Tour No 1.

"I know I'm not there yet. People say Jazz 'you're so good, you're No 1 on the Asian Tour' but to compete week in, week out with the best in the world, you need to step up in every part of your game. You can't make stupid mistakes."

To date, Japan's Hideki Matsuyama is the only Asian golfer who has won two WGC tournaments, including the FedEx St. Jude Invitational when it was played at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio, in 2017. He is also in this week's field, with a tie for 21st being his best finish to date since last month's Return to Golf.

The PGA Tour contributed to this story.

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