AUGUSTA, Ga. – Guan Tianlang is in good company this week at Augusta National.
He played a practice round Monday with two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw, then headed out in the afternoon with Tiger Woods. He has a game lined up today with Tom Watson, an eight-time major champion. On Wednesday, he plans to play the Par 3 Tournament with Nick Faldo, winner of six majors.
Can’t he play with someone his own age?
Not at this Masters.
Guan is the 14-year-old from China, the youngest to ever play in the Masters and the youngest player at any major in 148 years. He qualified by winning the Asia Pacific Amateur Championship last fall in Thailand, and now he gets a crack at the best in the game, on one of the most famous golf courses in the world.
Nerves? So far, only a big smile.
“I’m really excited in the morning when I come out on the course and there’s many people here,” Guan said Monday, conducting his news conference in English with a Chinese translator at his side in case he needed help. He rarely did.
The kid has shown to be special in many ways.
He went wire-to-wire in the Asia Pacific amateur, and he wasn’t even rattled on the final hole at Amata Spring Country Club. With a belly putter he had been using for about six months, he calmly rapped in a 5-foot par putt for the one-shot win and a drive down Magnolia Lane – in the passenger seat, of course.
Age seems to have no limits these days in golf.
Tiger Woods was 21 when he set 20 records to win the 1997 Masters. Sergio Garcia was 19 when he nearly beat Woods in the PGA Championship two years later. Morgan Pressel was 18 when she won a major championship on the LPGA Tour. Lydia Ko was 15 when she won the Women’s Canadian Open last year on the LPGA Tour.
Even so, this is the Masters.
Guan is 14, the only player in the field who brought his eighth-grade homework with him to Augusta National.
“I knew he was young,” Steve Stricker said Monday. “I didn’t know he was the same age as my daughter. Yeah, that’s remarkable. And I’ve been telling my daughter the same with this Lydia Ko, who has been playing on the LPGA Tour. I just can’t imagine being that young and competing at this level at such an early age. It will be interesting. I’ll be interested to see how he does and how he handles it and how he plays. It’s remarkable that he’s even playing.”
The only player younger than Guan in a major championship was Young Tom Morris, who was about a month younger in the 1865 British Open.
Guan arrived a few weeks ago and can’t get enough of Augusta. He figures he already has played six rounds, and he was with a member the day he shot 69. Whether that translates in the tournament is another story.
Guan played in the Australian Open in December and opened with an 82 at The Lakes in Sydney. He bounced back with a 70 the next day, though the first-round score was enough to imagine what kind of number waits on the 7,445-yard course at Augusta National.
“I would say I’m not long enough, but I think I’m still all right in this golf course,” Guan said. “And I drive a little bit longer in Thailand than here, but I think I’m still all right, not a really serious problem.”
At least he’s finding the right kind of help.
A friend at his home course in China knows Crenshaw and passed along the message that the kid wanted to play a practice round with him. Crenshaw gladly obliged, and was impressed with what he saw. Guan did not go wire-to-wire in Thailand on accident.
Crenshaw studied his touch, balance and rhythm, and he tried to show him the nuances of the slopes on the greens.
“It was fascinating to see,” Crenshaw said.
Guan has been spending long days at Augusta in the week leading to the Masters, not leaving until twilight Saturday.
And he was back on the course Sunday, playing nine holes and heading to the practice round. He was startled by a familiar voice.
“There he is!” Watson bellowed in his direction. After a hearty handshake, Watson said to him, “Working hard?”
“GOOD!” Watson replied, flashing his gap-tooth grin.
The 30,000 fans on the course Monday didn’t seem to bother Guan on the first official day of practice. Woods played 14 holes Sunday with Stricker, and then returned Monday afternoon to play with Dustin Johnson, with Guan tagging along.
“It’s frightening to think that he was born after I won my first Masters,” Woods said two weeks ago at Bay Hill.
This is not the first time Woods has seen the Chinese teenager. He was at the HSBC Champions in Shanghai a few years ago, and during the pro-am Guan was in a group of juniors who played with Woods on the par-3 17th hole. Woods stood to the side amazed, not only at such a polished swing, but the composure playing before a thousand people.
Guan has been looking up to Woods since he was 3 or 4 years old, and “it’s pretty exciting to watch him.”
“I played with him twice in the past couple years, and he gives me many advice and I will say every time I play with him, I feel a lot better and give myself some confidence and it’s very good,” Guan said.
Nicolas Colsaerts is making his Masters debut. The Belgian, however, has the experience of playing major championships and a Ryder Cup last year. Plus, he’s 30.
“I don’t think I would have handled it,” Colsaerts said. “You know, 14, we’re all busy already playing a lot of good golf, but to play Augusta at 14, I think everybody is almost in shock. I hope for him he’s going to enjoy this week as much as I am. I almost feel like I should be considered the same way because this place needs to be treated more as a rookie thing. But, yeah, it’s quite an achievement to get to play Augusta and the Masters at 14 years old.”
There was one question in Chinese, and Guan slowly shook his head waiting for the reporter to finish. As the center of attention this week, the reporter was curious if Guan would feel embarrassed if he plays poorly.
For Guan, it’s more about the experience than the score.
“As I say, I’m not going to push myself too hard, and I’m trying to just enjoy my game, play my best, and hopefully play some good score,” he said.