Strong Open finish pays big dividends for China's Haotong Li

A month ago and playing in his first major at the U.S. Open, Haotong Li shot 82-84 to finish last among the players who made the cut at Erin Hills. Fast-forward to The Open, and he went 69-63 on the weekend at Royal Birkdale. Andrew Redington/Getty Images

SOUTHPORT, England -- Haotong Li was understandably excited when he holed a birdie putt on the 18th green at Royal Birkdale on Sunday, capping a round of 63 and vaulting him well up the leaderboard while playing alongside two-time Open champion Ernie Els.

But that couldn't top the giddiness a little while later when he was asked during a media session if he knew that finishing among the top 4 at The Open meant an invitation to the 2018 Masters.

"Wow,'' he said, eyes widening. "What a gift!''

Li, 21, lives in Shanghai, and his third-place finish at The Open is the highest ever for a Chinese golfer. After starting the day at 1 over par, Li got hot after making a birdie at the eighth. He played his last seven holes in 7 under to shoot the 32nd 63 in major championship history. Branden Grace on Saturday became the first to ever shoot 62 in a major.

The 63 put Li at 274, 6 under par. He ended up 6 shots behind eventual champion Jordan Spieth.

It is just Li's second major championship appearance as he finished 68th last month at the U.S. Open.

"It's like a dream come true,'' said Li, who turned pro in 2011 and was the first Chinese member of the Web.com Tour in 2014.

Last year. Li won the Volvo China Open on the European Tour and earned an exemption to The Open by finishing among the top 30 in the European Tour's Race to Dubai.

"He was playing good and making putts,'' said Els, who shot 74 in the final round. "And he had a nice attitude. I could see he wasn't backing off. You see some guys get a little bit scared, but he kept going. So it was really special to see. The shot on 18 (hitting it to 4 feet) was just phenomenal.''

Li is just the sixth player ever and fourth at The Open to shoot a final-round 63 in a major.