Li Haotong will be in select company in a few weeks when he is one of 60 male golfers—and one of two men from China—who will be competing at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Li is China’s second-ranked player, and this year he has split his time between the Web.com Tour and the European Tour, while also playing in two PGA TOUR events. It will be difficult for Li to surpass the excitement he felt earlier this year when the 20-year-old from Shanghai won his country’s national title in Beijing, the Volvo China Open. But as a first-time Olympian, along with Wu Ashun, the eyes of China’s sports fans will be on Li as golf makes its return to the Olympic Games for the first time in 112 years. The fifth-year professional, with five career titles, knows just how special it will be when he puts on his country’s uniform and tees it up at the Olympic Golf Course in Rio in three weeks. Recently, Li sat down to discuss what it means to represent his country, what his plans are for his time in Brazil and his chances of bringing a medal back to China.
What’s your schedule between now and the Olympics?
I came back to Shanghai after Scotland (Scottish Open). I was hoping to play a couple of Web.com Tour tournaments in the U.S., before the Olympics, but I couldn’t make that fit my schedule because of special training that I have to go through with the COC (China Olympic Committee) and the CGA (China Golf Association). But for the next couple of weeks, I’ll just practice here at my home club, Lake Malaren, work out and try to put some weight on.
And what about your schedule once you arrive in Brazil?
So much depends on the China Golf Association. My training will be based on the schedule. But I think my preparation will be just like a regular event.
Can you predict what might be going through your mind when you’re on the first tee of the first round, and you are introduced to the people there to watch both in person and on TV?
Hopefully I won’t be too nervous. When I’m not nervous, I think that’s when I feel like I can play very well.
Have you thought about that when you play golf, most Chinese golf fans are rooting for you. But in the Olympics, all Chinese sports fans will be cheering for you? Does that change how you think about the Olympics?
I had a hard time in Shenzhen this year with so many fans cheering for me. I missed the cut. But in 2015 at the same tournament, I played very well and lost in a playoff. Then at the Volvo China Open earlier this year, I had so many fans yelling for me. And I won. So I don’t know how it’s going to be with people cheering for me and how I will do.
You have started working with a coach recently. How has that gone?
Yeah, Jamie Gough is helping me. He’s from South Africa, and he works on the European Tour with a lot of players, guys like Miguel Angel Jimenez, Andy Sullivan and Jose Maria Olazabal. I have changed my posture a lot, but I didn’t change my swing. So I need some time to get used to everything. It’s only been a week working with Jamie.
What’s it going to be like playing in the tournament with Ashun, even though the Olympics is not a team competition?
Well, at a regular event, we’re friendly. But I think at the Olympics, even though we’re not playing as a team, of course I’ll want him to play well. He is my teammate, and he’s also from China. So that’s important.
Beyond the golf, what are some of the things about the Olympic experience you’re anticipating?
Staying in the Olympic Village will be fun, and the Opening Ceremonies, marching in with all the athletes from China. That will be very special. For me and for my family, it will be huge to be an Olympian. My grandfather, my father’s dad, was waiting and waiting for 2008 since it was announced that Beijing would hold the Olympics. But he passed away in 2006 and never got to see China host the Games.
You had just started playing golf when your grandfather died, and even back then golf was not part of the Olympic program. So what do you think your grandfather would think of his grandson being an Olympian?
My grandfather never saw me play in any tournaments, and I was still a little boy when he died. I was 10, but I was close with him because we lived together. He missed seeing the 2008 Olympics in our home in China, so now I can play and that makes it such a huge thing for my family and for me.
Are you changing your team a little for the Olympics?
Yes. My father will caddie for me. My regular caddie, Will Davidson, will probably go to the Olympics, but I would like my father to be my caddie. It’s something I want my father to be able to experience in my grandfather’s honor. And my mom and sister will also be in Brazil supporting me.
When will you leave for Rio?
I haven’t received a full schedule yet. But it should be right at the end of July, and I will fly with the whole big team, all the Olympians from China. I don’t know one other Olympian other than Ashun. I think I can make a few new friends from other sports, not only athletes from China but from other countries, too.
What are your playing plans after the Olympics?
I will have one week off back in China, then it will be five straight weeks, starting in Denmark (Made in Denmark) at the end of August. I’ll then go to Switzerland (Omega European Masters), Netherlands (KLM Open), Italy (Italian Open) and Germany (Porsche European Open). Then maybe I can get some sponsor invitations to some PGA TOUR events after the FedExCup Playoffs are over.
You’ve had a lot of excitement and so many different experiences packed into the last two or three seasons. Does it seem real to you?
For me, it feels like everything has been so quick. I still cannot believe I have grown up so fast. Actually, even when I won that first event on PGA TOUR China (Jianye Tianzhu Henan Open), I couldn’t think about making the Olympics. That was still like a dream. Then everything happened very quickly, I was outside the Olympic rankings and then I won in Beijing and now I’m on the Olympic team. I know what winning a medal in the Olympics would mean in my country. Winning a gold medal to the people in China is for sure more important than if I won a major championship.