It’s been a remarkable year for Chinese teenager Tianlang Guan, but one specific moment stood out for the golfing prodigy – and it’s not the one you might think.
“I think probably my first shot at the first round at Augusta,” he said. “I have a perfect drive there, so it gives me a lot of confidence.”
The 14-year-old Guan is back home in China preparing for next week’s fifth annual Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship. In many ways, he is the child embodiment of the reason the tournament exists.
It was five years ago that Masters Tournament chairman Billy Payne unveiled his vision for the “untapped opportunity in Asia” and the club’s role in the game’s growth there.
“We want to pursue the development of amateur golf for the purpose of creating heroes and legends among the representative countries, establishing role models who attract other kids to the game,” Payne said in 2008.
His soaring rhetoric was embraced for its spirit, though cynics might have rolled eyes at the prospective reality when they partnered with the R&A to create the Asia-Pacific Amateur. When the inaugural winner, Han Chang Won of South Korea, missed the cut in the 2010 Masters at 11-over par (the same score posted by that year’s U.S. Amateur finalists, incidentally), the growth timetable still seemed a long way off.
However, as the fifth chapter gets set to start Oct. 24-27 at Nanshan International Golf Club in China, any skeptics have disappeared. Years two and three delivered Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama, who not only made two cuts at Augusta but has already risen to No. 29 in the world rankings at the ripe old age of 21 with top-20 finishes in three majors last year and a spot in the Presidents Cup.
Then came last year’s revelation, Guan – a middle schooler with the power of a Fred Funk and the short-game prowess of Luke Donald. The youngest player to ever compete in a major championship last April, Guan defied all logic by scrambling his way into the weekend at the Masters and claiming the silver medal as the only amateur to make the cut (and youngest in tour history).
His impact on golf in the emerging Chinese market was exactly what Payne had envisioned.
“When I went back to China, I think more people recognized me, appreciate their support a lot,” Guan said. “I think the most important thing is that more and more people, and especially young Chinese people, know about golf and start to pick up the game. ... More people know about the Masters and I think it means a lot to the young players in China and they think, probably, the Masters is not that far away from them.”
HIS PERFORMANCE AT Augusta was dazzling in spite of a high-profile slow-play penalty that left Ben Crenshaw on the verge of tears and many others fuming that a seventh-grader would be made an example of for a scourge practiced by so many of the game’s professionals.
Six months later, Guan still isn’t bitter about the slow-play penalty.
“I still respect what they do with me,” he said. “I still really respect the referee and I think it’s a really good experience to me, so I learned from that. ... I think I should thank (him) for that.”
After the Masters, Guan stuck around to compete in four PGA Tour events. He made the cut in New Orleans two weeks after Augusta but missed cuts at the Byron Nelson, Memorial and Memphis events. His lone pro start since returning to China in August was a missed cut in a Japan Tour event.
The rest of his time has been focused on school every day and practice each afternoon. His body is developing more strength as he gets set to try to defend his amateur title in his native country.
“I don’t feel much more pressure this time,” he said. “But I think it is still ... the greatest amateur event in the world. So I really hope to win it again, and I feel like if I am playing well and I’m having a really good week, I can win again.”
OTHER THAN SWITCHING to a conventional putter now that golf’s governing bodies have set in motion the abolition of the anchored stroke, Guan’s not much different than he was a year ago when he shocked the field to win the amateur event in Thailand and set in motion his whirlwind year.
“I think the only thing that’s changed probably, I have more confidence now and I have more experience now for return,” he said.
While 16-year-old female star Lydia Ko announced she’s turning pro and filed a petition last week to compete on the LPGA Tour despite its age restrictions, Guan is still just trying to get better and see what happens in 2014.
“I still have no idea about turning pro now,” he said. “I’m working on my game now, still working on my game but schoolwork is very important for me still. So I think it is still a long way to go.
“I hope I can still go back to Augusta next year, too. But other than that I don’t have a plan now.”
It’s not out of the question that Guan could be invited back to the Masters regardless of how he finishes in the Asia-Pacific Amateur. The Masters can offer special exemptions to foreign-born players, and the last 11 special invitations since 2002 have gone to Asian players, including an unprecedented three to Japan’s Ryo Ishikawa. The last amateur to receive a special exemption from Augusta was Australia's Aaron Baddeley in 2000.
GUAN WAS SUCH an appealing global story and his performance so notable that Augusta might just invite him back anyway if the field size remains manageable. There will soon be one missing amateur invitation with the elimination of the U.S. Public Links after 2014. Other qualification changes such as the removal of PGA Tour’s top-30 money leaders and the reduction of four spots each from top finishers in the previous year’s Masters and U.S. Open should offset any additions to winners from the extended PGA Tour season.
Guan will be 15 next April and perhaps more capable of handling the 7,400-yard course with something other than his remarkable short game recoveries.
“I think my body feels stronger now,” Guan said. “I can hit it a little bit longer now but I don’t think it’s that comparable as every golfer. I think we all have our strengths and the parts we need to improve. I think I still have a lot of room for myself to grow.”
And – much to Augusta National’s pleasure – room for Asian golf to grow right along with him.