Guan Tianlang stands with his caddie on the 8th hole during the final round of the 2013 Masters. (Getty Images)
First he was Guan Tianlang, the 14-year-old who in 2013 became the youngest player ever to tee it up at the Masters.
Next he was Guan Tianlang, recipient of the first slow-play penalty in the 77-year history of the tournament.
Then he was Guan Tianlang, youngest player to make the cut at the Masters after maneuvering around Augusta National without a three-putt or a score higher than a bogey.
Today? He's just trying to be Guan Tianlang.
That's not to say he hasn't been busy. After Augusta last year he played in four PGA Tour events (making the cut at the Zurich), and an event on both the Japan and European tours. He also represented China in the Nomura Cup, a Walker Cup of sorts involving teams from the Asia-Pacific region. He and his parents took an extended trip to Bradenton, Fla., where he trained at the IMG Academy. After a fling with a belly putter, he's back to a standard-length model and is working on his game with noted instructor Sean Foley part-time.
"I absolutely enjoyed every second of it," Guan says of his experience at Augusta, where he finished 58th. "After it was over, it was a little bit overwhelming, but it didn't take me too long to go back to a normal life."
His week at the National opened plenty of doors for the ninth-grader. The opportunity to have Tiger Woods’s coach look at your swing was one of them. Even as he hones the swings of some of the top players on Tour, Foley, director of the Canadian Junior Golf Association for more than a decade, remains passionate about junior golf. He says watching the 140-pound Guan navigate Augusta National en route to a 58th-place finish “blew his mind.”
“I’ve been around many good [junior] players, and they tend to not be your normal Justin Bieber–singing, wanting-to-be-popular, obsessed-with-Twitter teenagers,” Foley says. “They are more mature. They seem shy, but I don’t find that to be true. I just think they’re hyperfocused. And that’s not normal for a 14-year-old.”
Guan, now 15, is meticulous in his practice sessions with Foley. After each shot he holds his follow-through until the ball hits the ground, analyzes the result and steps back to clean the dirt from his grooves before hitting another ball.
"One of the most deliberate practice players I've ever seen is Tiger [Woods], but I've never seen anyone like Guan at this age," Foley says. "He may hit balls for two hours, but he might not hit more than 50 shots."
In January, Guan missed the cut at the Sony, and this year he'll watch the Masters like most people do—on TV, from his home in Guangzhou, China. He hopes to return to the Asia-Pacific Championship in October—the tournament he won to get to Augusta in 2013—and other top amateur events, including the China Open.
The question everyone keeps asking: When will he turn pro?
"I never set any specific goals for any certain age," Guan says. "I don't think turning pro should be planned, but you will just know the timing is right when you feel ready. Not just your golf skills but also mentally."
Mentally, he sounds ready.
"It's pretty obvious he wants to be the world's No. 1 player," Foley says, "but right now he's working on becoming the best Guan Tianlang he can be."
For a kid who doesn't turn 16 until October, that's just fine.
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