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China's young master

Posted: April 9, 2013 - 12:01am
Tiger Woods, left, chats with amateur Guan Tianlang, of China, on the driving range during a practice round for the Masters golf tournament Monday, April 8, 2013, in Augusta, Ga. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)  Darron Cummings
Darron Cummings
Tiger Woods, left, chats with amateur Guan Tianlang, of China, on the driving range during a practice round for the Masters golf tournament Monday, April 8, 2013, in Augusta, Ga. (AP Photo/Darron Cummings)

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- The pressure is already off the record-breaking 14-year-old Masters Tournament participant from China.

If Tianlang Guan fails to qualify to return to the Masters in 2014, he can at least come back for the finals of the Drive, Chip & Putt Championship.

Typically Augusta National Golf Club is one of those timeless places where aging champions are annually feted. But the first day of Masters Week turned into a celebration of junior golf.

Shortly after the remarkably composed Asia-Pacific Amateur champion talked about enjoying the moment before he headed out for a late afternoon practice round with Tiger Woods, Augusta National chairman Billy Payne announced that the world’s most renowned private club would be opening its doors the Sunday before the 2014 Masters to an even younger crowd.

The finals of next year’s Drive, Chip & Putt will bring 88 girls and boys ages 7-15 to Augusta National – a dream come true for any aspiring golfer.

“Imagine, if you will, the incredible excitement these 88 finalists will experience as they come to the site of the Masters to compete in the driving and chipping on our beautiful tournament practice range, and as they conclude their competition – putting to win as all major Masters champions have before – on the 18th green of Augusta National Golf Club,” Payne said.

Now imagine you’re one of those 14-year-olds actually getting to drive, chip and putt during the actual Masters in front of more than 50,000 fans and a worldwide audience. That’s where Tianlang now sits as he prepares for a night’s sleep in the Crow’s Nest after playing through Amen Corner with his idol, Woods.

“If you think about it, he’s not even in high school yet – he can’t even play high school golf,” Woods said. “He’s in middle school and he’s playing the Masters. It’s a pretty remarkable story.”

Indeed it is, one that has Tianlang walking on air in between homework assignments and boning up on his English.

“I’m really excited in the morning when I come out on the course and there’s many people here and I’m really looking forward to the tournament,” said Tianlang, speaking English more fluently than many adolescent American boys who are not from Guangzhou, China. “I think it’s going to be a little pressure to me, but I’m not going to push myself too hard, and I’m going to enjoy the game so far.”

Following the advice of his mentor Liang Wen Chong, who played in the 2008 Masters, Tianlang has been acclimating himself to Augusta for three weeks, playing a couple of rounds each week at the National. He’s gotten to know the course as well as he can, but there’s only so much a 5-foot-9 kid who’s bulked up 12 pounds since November to 143 pounds can do on a 7,435-yard course.

“I would say I’m not long enough, but I think I’m still all right in this golf course,” Tianlang 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.”

His biggest challenges will be Augusta’s long par-4s like Nos. 1 and 11. He’ll have trouble reaching the crest of the hill on the first, leaving him about 190 yards and a hybrid to the vexing green first thing every day. On 11, he’ll be back even further in the 200- to 220-yard range facing a cut fairway wood into the pond-guarded green.

“If I play good this hole is all right, but it’s going to play tough,” he said.

Tianlang showed the strength of his youth Monday. He played an 18-hole practice round with two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw in the morning and then went out for the late nine with Woods. The 61-year-old Crenshaw called it a “strange” experience at times.

“I think all of us are asking ourselves, ‘What were we doing at 14?’” said Crenshaw, who admits at that age he had a girlfriend who occupied too much of his time. “You can tell he breathes golf. It was fascinating to see him play.”

In an age when more and more kids are pushing the envelope at younger and younger ages, Tianlang is unique with his long putter that makes up for any shortages in power. He won the 2011 Junior World Golf Championship with a record 18-under total. Then he won the 2012 Asia-Pacific Amateur, firing rounds of 66-64 on the first two days at Amata Spring Country Club in Thailand then made a gritty par on a closing par-4 he couldn’t reach with a driver and 3-wood to win by one shot over Asia’s top two amateurs.

That made him the youngest player to qualify for a major championship, eclipsing another 14-year-old from China (Andy Zhang) who missed the cut at last year’s U.S. Open. Tianlang is two years younger than Matteo Manassero was when he first played in the Masters in 2010.

“I want to say, because I have the confidence and I know I can play well,” he said. “So I’m going to play like myself, so I’m not going to try to do too much things. “

Outside of the favorites, Tianlang has been the talk of the tournament so far – some conversations more admirable than others.

“I don’t think I would have handled it,” said Nicolas Colsaerts, a Masters rookie himself at age 30. “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.”

Then there are guys like Charlie Beljan, who won last fall at Disney but didn’t receive an automatic invitation to the Masters. Beljan bitterly tweeted “can’t even get in with a pgatour win. But 14 year olds are welcome.”

Some people don’t get it. It’s not a question about whether Tianlang can compete with Woods on Sunday to win the Masters. Half the field has no chance of doing that when they tee it up on Thursday.

Sometimes a story just needs to be marveled at for what it is – remarkable, as Woods said.

As the Olympic motto says – Citius, Altius, Fortius, ... Faster. Higher. Stronger.

And in the case of Augusta National these days – younger.

Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or scott.michaux@augustachronicle.com.

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