GRANITEVILLE, S.C. – The 54 assembled elite junior golfers at Sage Valley ought to be glad the youngest among them was a no-show.
Tianlang Guan – the 14-year-old from China who made history two weeks ago at the Masters Tournament – bypassed his invitation to the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley to accept a sponsor’s exemption to play this week’s PGA Tour event in New Orleans.
Guan shot 3-under-par on Friday at TPC Louisiana to make his second consecutive cut among pros in America. Only one player did better than that in the first round at Sage Valley.
“I’m happy for him he’s playing in New Orleans,” said 16-year-old Sam Horsfield, who leads the Junior Invitational with 4-under 68. “Wow. Pretty impressive.”
The only 14-year-old at Sage Valley this week, Won Jun Lee, of South Korea, shot 86 on Friday. Exactly one month older than Guan, Lee says he’s nowhere near ready to test his game on a stage like the Masters. The Junior Invitational is the biggest event he’s played in.
“I need more experience,” said Lee, who called Guan’s cut-making performance at Augusta “amazing.” “This is good experience for the big tournaments.”
That has certainly proven to be the case in the brief history of the Junior Invitational. After only two years, participants at Sage Valley have done amazing things as teenagers in the immediate aftermath.
In the inaugural Invitational, Emiliano Grillo, of Argentina, finished third behind eventual Georgia No. 1 golfer Nicholas Reach. Grillo turned professional at age 19 later that year and immediately earned his playing status on the European Tour via Qualifying School, making him the second youngest holder of a full Euro card behind Matteo Manassero. He finished in the top 10 in his first event (the 2012 Africa Open) and retained his card with a top 100 season on the money list.
The runner-up that same year, Patrick Rodgers, became only the second Stanford golfer to win his first collegiate event (the first was Tiger Woods) and is a finalist for this year’s Ben Hogan Award.
Last year, a 17-year-old from California named Beau Hossler came to Sage Valley and finished tied for 10th. Less than two months later, he held the outright lead in the U.S. Open at Olympic midway through the second round and contended into Sunday.
So the kids competing at Sage Valley this week know they’re not too far away from the next level.
“Not at all,” said Horsfield, who beat Ryder Cup star Ian Poulter 1-up in a nine-hole match at Poulter’s home course Lake Nona in Orlando, Fla. “These are the 54 best juniors in the world.”
As Guan has shown, the line between junior and professional keeps getting blurrier every year.
Nearly a century ago, Bobby Jones reached the quarterfinals of the U.S. Amateur at age 14, signaling his coming emergence as the world’s greatest amateur.
Through the years, other prodigies have kept lowering the bar. Seve Ballesteros turned pro at age 16 and started winning European Tour events at age 18. In 1996, fellow Spaniard Sergio Garcia became the youngest to make a cut on the European Tour at age 15.
But since 2000, the age milestones have been accelerating to younger and younger triumphs.
Ty Tryon earned a PGA Tour card at Q School at age 17 before his pro career subsequently flopped.
Ryo Ishikawa won a Japan Tour event at age 15 and had nine victories before reaching his 20th birthday.
Manassero won the British Amateur at age 15, sending him to the Masters at age 16. The Italian had two European Tour victories before his 18th birthday.
In women’s golf, the margins are trending even younger. Michelle Wie played a PGA Tour event at age 14, missing the cut by one shot. She already had top-three finishes in every LPGA major by age 16.
Lexi Thompson qualified for a U.S. Women’s Open at age 12, turned pro at 15 and won an LPGA event at 16.
Now comes Lydia Ko, who at age 14 became the youngest player regardless of gender to win a pro event. She then broke Thompson’s record by winning the LPGA’s Canadian Open at age 15.
Guan is just setting the table for the next prodigy. If it’s no longer ridiculous for a 14-year-old to make the cut at the Masters, is 13 out of the question?
“I was not really surprised that he played well,” said Carl Yuan, a 16-year-old from China who has played in some amateur events with Guan. “He was trained for that kind of stuff.”
Most kids by age 14 can barely figure out what they want for breakfast much less the rest of their lives. A fellow writer walked around Augusta National following Guan asking 13- and 14-year-olds about their biggest accomplishments to date. Said one kid: “I ate a Baconator once.”
The kids at Sage Valley admit that they aren’t yet ready for the Masters stage now, much less when they were 14.
“I wasn’t that good,” 18-year-old Clemson signee Carson Young said of his 14-year-old self.
But before long – maybe before the year is over – some of these kids will be right where Guan is.