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Looking to make history, Li Haotong sits fourth after steady opening round

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Li Haotong had seen Augusta National only on television prior to last week. On Thursday, he traversed the storied course with calm and confidence, shooting a 3-under-par 69 to put himself among the leaders through the first round of the Masters.

Li, 22, the first player from China to crack the top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking, made six birdies and three bogeys in just his fourth major championship start, his first at the Masters.

He is tied for fourth, 3 strokes back of tournament leader Jordan Spieth.

"Actually, I thought I'm going to be nervous on the first tee, but it was all right,'' said Li, who plays on the European Tour. "So just quite happy to see and have such a great opening round.''

Li earned his spot in the Masters by tying for third at last year's Open at Royal Birkdale, where he birdied the final hole to shoot 63, climbing the leaderboard in the process.

Outside of the great score and high finish in just his second major championship, Li was unaware of the great perk that came with it. Those among the top four at the other major championships earn an invitation to the following year's Masters.

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

Li lives in Shanghai and his finish at The Open was the highest ever for a Chinese golfer.

Here, he is hoping to make more history.

Li turned pro in 2011 and was the first Chinese member of the Web.com Tour in 2014. In 2016, he 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.

Earlier this year, he dueled Rory McIlroy at the Dubai Desert Classic and prevailed for his second European Tour victory.

"I took a lot of confidence from (beating) Rory that week,'' he said. "Actually, after that week, I've been struggling a little bit on my putting. I've been working a lot on that, and you can see today I made a lot of par saves, par putts. So I just have to keep going.''

Each of the past two years, the winner of the Dubai event -- Danny Willett in 2016, Sergio Garcia in 2017 -- went on to win the Masters. "Well, at least it's a good sign for myself,'' Li said. "And hopefully I can join them.''

Li helped his cause with a steady start. He birdied all three holes at Amen Corner (Nos. 11, 12 and 13) and added another birdie at the 15th. He played the par-5s in 3 under par.

"He's very fun-loving and sort of carefree and very funny," McIlroy said. "I enjoyed my couple of days with him in Dubai earlier this year, even though he got the better of me.

"But he's a great talent. He's still very young, but he's a great player for such a young age and I'm sure he'll be around for a long time. And if that boosts the image of golf in China as well and gets more kids over there to play, then that's fantastic."