Prodigy Guan ready to make waves on his Masters’ debut
A Chinese boy (14) will be teeing it up with the greats at Augusta, reports Karen Crouse
In his 2008 Masters address, Augusta National chairman Billy Payne introduced a programme that allowed children ages eight-16 free admission to the tournament when accompanied by a ticketed patron. Five years later, a 14-year-old will experience the Masters from inside the ropes as one of the 94 competitors, the beneficiary of another grand plan conceived by the club in 2008 to help the sport grow: the creation of the competition that became the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship.
Guan Tianlang of China, the event’s reigning champion, will bring his budding game to Augusta National for the first men’s Major this week. The vision set forth by Augusta National in concert with Britain’s Royal and Ancient to pursue, in Payne’s words, “the development of amateur golf for the purpose of creating heroes and legends among the representative countries and establishing role models who attract other kids to the game”, has, in Guan, its embodiment.
Guan is built like a bamboo stalk and will be the seventh Chinese player to tee it up in the Masters and easily the most precocious. He is the youngest participant in the tournament’s 77-year history, his presence portending the men’s game’s Asia craze.
Inspired by Tiger
The pipeline of talent includes Ye Wocheng, who qualified for this year’s China Open on the European Tour at age 12, trumping the record set by Guan, who was 13 when he competed in the event last year.
Also in the mix are: Andy Zhang of China, who qualified for last year’s US Open at age 14; Miguel Tabuena (18), of the Philippines, a rising star on the Asian Tour; and Hideki Matsuyama (21), a two-time winner of the Asia-Pacific and a winner on the Japan Tour who is scheduled to make his professional debut this month in his native Japan.
Young men in Asia are inspired by Tiger Woods, a four-time Masters champion who is part Thai. And they are spurred by golf’s inclusion in the Olympics starting in 2016. Consequently, they are taking to the game. Nan Qiong, who reports on golf for Sports Illustrated China, said golf’s inclusion in the Olympics led China’s General Administration of Sport to identify a pool of potential participants. “And more provincial authorities are attaching greater importance to this sport,” she said.
Ian Poulter, the English Ryder Cup star who beat the likes of Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson to win a World Golf Championships event in China last November, said: “We get to spend a bit of time with a lot of the juniors that are coming through from their junior programmes and we see it. We’ve seen it already in the last couple of years and we continue to see that there’s more and more that swing it fantastic. Their work ethic is incredible.
“They work very, very hard, and they’re being fine-tuned to play golf. I’m not sure if it’s for the Olympics or what they’re playing for, but there are lots of them and they’re working very hard. So if I do my math, I think it’s only a couple of years away before we see someone very special.”
The women’s game already has a constellation of Asian stars. Led by Se Ri Pak, a five-time Major winner, 38 South Koreans earned their LPGA Tour playing privileges in 2013. Last year, Shanshan Feng (23) became the first golfer from China to win a Major, at the LPGA Championship, and in recent years, Yani Tseng of Taiwan and Ai Miyazato of Japan have held the number one ranking.
Feng is from the same hometown, Guangzhou, as Guan, who was introduced to the game by his father, Guan Han Wen, at age four. Over the years, she said, she has seen quite a bit of him on the practice range. “I could always tell he was really talented,” said Feng. “He has a very nice swing, he hits the ball very well, he has a very good short game.”
Guan does not yet possess the strength to drive the ball far. He averages 250 yards off the tee, which means he will be using longer clubs for his shots into Augusta National’s small, fast greens. If he hopes to make the cut, his short game will have to be very good.
Stamped his ticket
He stamped his ticket to the Masters with his play around the greens. On the final day of the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship, Guan arrived at the 18th hole at Amata Spring Country Club in Thailand with a one-stroke lead over Pan Cheng-tsung of Taiwan, a sophomore at the University of Washington. He was unable to reach the par four in two shots, but chipped within five feet and made the putt.
Like US-born youngsters, Guan was drawn to the game by the wizardry of Woods, a 14-time Major winner. One of his earliest memories of watching golf on television, Guan said, is of Woods’ last Masters victory, in 2005. On his way to beating Chris DiMarco in a playoff, Woods holed a chip shot on the par-three 16th that remains ingrained in Guan’s memory. The ball trickled down the hill like a tear and hung on the lip of the cup before dropping.
“That was the time I got to know the PGA Tour,” Guan said in an interview. His parents were his first golfing influences. “I watched them play all the time, and my dad gave me a set of kid golf clubs to play when I was three or four,” said Guan. “I enjoy the game so much and I have been doing it well since I took up the game.”
Though lacking length off the tee, he is not short on confidence. Guan, who was 490th in the world amateur rankings going into last year’s Asia-Pacific Amateur Championships, tweeted after his one-shot victory: “I WANT to win the US Masters in Augusta.”
Later, in an interview with Golf Digest, he said: “I think I have a chance to make the cut. I beat Hideki Matsuyama in Thailand, and he’s made the cut twice. However, making the cut is not my target. I’m more concerned about what I’ll show the world. I like the proverb ‘Man proposes, God disposes’.”
Guan travelled to Georgia last month from his base in California to play a few practice rounds at Augusta National. At 14 years six months, he will be more than two years younger than the next-youngest Masters participant, Matteo Manassero of Italy, who was 16 years 11 months in 2010.
“My first impression when I first arrived into the entrance of Augusta National was that the grass was so much greener than other golf courses that I had been to,” he said. “Augusta National has a long history of famous golfers and matches between them. I am so excited to stand and play the course where so many famous golfers have made history.”
Planned to stay
He said he planned to stay at Augusta National with the other amateurs, and arranged a practice round this week with Tom Watson, a two-time Masters champion whom he met while playing in the Australian Open last December.
“It’s frightening to think that he was born after I won my first Masters,” said Woods, who won the first of his green jackets in 1997. He laughed. “I mean that’s just frightening.”
Woods, speaking last month after his victory at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, added: “The game has become global. There are more countries represented on the PGA Tour than ever before and that’s not going to change. It’s only going to increase, and we’re going to have a lot of players from countries that traditionally haven’t been into golf that are going to start to play this game at a high level.”
At Bay Hill, the 83-year-old Palmer, a four-time winner at Augusta National, expressed reservations about Guan’s competing at the Masters.
“I’m not so sure that it isn’t more of a detriment than it is a plus for him,” he said. “I think that if he had a little more experience and a little more time to play the game and play in competition, that he might want to wait a little longer to attack something like Augusta.”
There is no time for waiting in China, where golf courses are cropping up faster than they can be permitted. In the early 1990s, when the PGA Tour travelled to Shenzhen for a World Cup event, there were roughly 40 courses. Nan estimated that as of last year, there were more than 580 18-hole courses.
“Golf is still in a developmental stage in China,” said Guan. “Therefore, it is not as popular as in the US. But I can see it getting more and more popular.”
Noting that Ye broke his record as the youngest player to qualify for a European Tour event, Guan said: “I believe in the future of golf in China.”
Feng’s victory at the LPGA Championship caused a few ripples of interest, she said, but nothing like the waves that Guan is likely to generate simply by teeing it up at Augusta. “It doesn’t matter what he does this week . . . I would say that if people don’t give him too much pressure, he can make more magic happen.”
New York Times