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Teen wonder Guan Tianlang keeps cool in Masters debut

Updated: May 13, 2013 6:47AM



AUGUSTA, Ga. — Guan Tianlang walked up to the first tee at Augusta National on Thursday looking even younger than his 14 years on earth. If someone had announced a read-aloud story time, Guan might have sought out a lap.

He was about to play his first round of the Masters, and he was about to do it in front of a throng of people, many with age spots old enough to vote and join the military.

You stood there and wondered whether nerves were preventing Guan from feeling his hands on the golf club as he waggled it in preparation for his drive or whether, at his age, he was oblivious to the enormity of the moment.

His playing partners, 61-year-old Ben Crenshaw and 19-year-old Matteo Manassero (you call that young?), had pulled their drives to the left of the fairway.

The eighth-grader slapped his drive right down the middle.

The gallery roared in appreciation but perhaps also in relief for not playing a role in any lasting psychological damage the kid might incur in this unforgiving tournament. It doesn’t look like that’s going to happen, judging from how he played Thursday. He shot a one-over 73 with a healthy crowd following him around the course. Defending champion Bubba Watson shot 75.

“I hit a great tee shot [on No. 1] and after that, everything just feel comfortable,’’ Guan said in English.

Imagine the pressure. Most 14-year-olds would prefer to die than stand in front of a group of adults and be the center of attention. Is there anything more mortifying in life? But he might as well have been one of the pine trees on the course, so unfazed was he by it all.

“He played like a 28-year-old journeyman who’s been around the block many, many times,’’ Crenshaw said.

Tournament officials obviously put the mellow Crenshaw in the threesome for his calming influence. He could make a squirrel relax. But the amazing thing about Guan was that he didn’t seem to need Crenshaw’s soothing manner. He bogeyed the first hole but hit his first three fairways. Here and there, he’d get in a touch of trouble, but he always seemed to find a way out, thanks to a short game many pros would die for.

His story has been well chronicled: He won the Asian-Pacific Amateur Championship last year to qualify for the Masters, becoming the youngest player to make the field in the 77-year history of the tournament.

Is it hypocritical to question the presence of young female Olympic gymnasts, as I did in London, and then turn around and celebrate someone as young as Guan? I don’t think so. Those girls risk health problems because of the demands of their sport, starting with their diet. There’s not much natural about 85-pound 16-year-olds.

“I’m not worried,’’ his father, Hang Wen, said through an interpreter. “We just want him to have fun. It’s kind of an entertainment, an exciting thing for him. … It’s an amazing achievement already. I’m not worried.’’

One of the more reassuring things on display was the way the parents and their son behaved on the course. Guan did not look to them after every shot, the way you see some browbeaten young athletes do. He seems to be his own man, or at least his own 14-year-old.

His mother, Hong Yu, did have a juice box and a banana ready for him at the 10th tee box. He might be the only player in the field with a team mom.

While here, Guan has spent about an hour each day doing homework. His parents gave him a break Thursday night because he has an early tee time Friday.

Should a 14-year-old come to Augusta National three weeks before the tournament begins to practice? What would we say if this were a 14-year-old Kobe Bryant trying to make it in the NBA?

Legitimate questions. The only answer is that, as more young athletes hit the big time, we’ll deal with it on a case-by-case basis. Some kids will be mature enough to handle it; some won’t. But the floodgates have been opened, and the rush of water can’t be stopped. Manassero became the youngest person to make the Masters cut as a 16-year in 2010.

If the Chinese decide to embrace this thoroughly bourgeoisie sport, well, look out, world. That’s one of the reasons Augusta National and the Royal and Ancient Golf Club have pushed the game internationally. They want golf to grow in a country of 1.3 billion people, and they want the money to grow. The best way to do that is to find a hero.

They seem to have found one.

Some of the people Guan has played with here have said he’ll need to change the plane of his flat swing as he gets older and stronger. His best drives travel 250 yards, which should have made life very difficult for him Thursday at Augusta. You don’t want to try to stop the ball on the green with a long iron or wood.

But when you have a short game that’s as gentle as a mother’s touch, it can make up for drives that lack distance.

“He played about four of the most beautiful pitches you’ve ever seen,’’ Crenshaw said.

Considering Guan’s short game is self-taught, that’s high praise, indeed.

On the 18th hole, he made a 15-foot birdie from the fringe, and the crowd erupted in applause and shouting.

He tipped his cap, cool to the very end.

“I want to win a major and hopefully I can win the four majors in one year,’’ he said afterward.

It must be wonderful to be so young and fearless.



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