With the weight of a country on his shoulders, we could all learn a thing or two from Guan Tianlang
First off, there’s nothing wrong with calling him the Kid. It’s a sign of respect, American style.
The kid, 14-year-old Guan Tianlang of China, made the cut at Augusta and then in New Orleans, and he’s going to try to earn a spot in next month’s U.S. Open at Merion through sectional qualifying. “Some kid” is derisive. She’s going to prom with some kid. “The kid” is a term of respect. The kid stays in the picture.
Right now, the kid is smack-dab in the middle of the picture. Tiger Woods has been talking about the eighth-grader. So have Jack Nicklaus and Bubba Watson, Golf Channel and ESPN, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. The kid has a chance to become the single most influential figure in the history of golf. Why? Because China has 1.3 billion people and maybe 600 courses. The U.S. has 315.7 million people and 18,000 courses. Imagine if Guan sparks a golf craze in China like the Beach Boys did for surfing in the United States. He could. You know who’s been the most transformative figure in world golf in the Tiger era? Se Ri Pak of Korea. Talk about growing the game.
Of course, there’s no saying where Guan’s own game will go. Michelle Wie was a better golfer at 15 than she is now at 23. Guan, by Tiger’s own reckoning, is a better golfer at 14 than Tiger was at 14. But Tiger won a Masters by 12 at age 21. Will Guan be ready to win majors at 21? Or 31 or 41?
And does it matter if he wins at those ages? In the (make-believe) book Studies in Human Contentment, the section on child prodigies who find adult happiness is appallingly slim. (Although there will always be Paul McCartney.) Adults, often blinded by just the prospect of fame and fortune, conveniently drive by the landfill of youthful promise with blinders on. Kids are more aware.
Down the street from the Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa., is a K-8 parochial school called Regina Angelorum Academy. Henry Clay is a 14-year-old eighth-grader there, similar in size to Guan. He has an ambitious plan this summer to get taller, with the hope of making the freshman basketball team at Archbishop Carroll High next year. Until very recently, Henry was unaware of Guan, but he blamed that on missing recent episodes of SportsCenter. Told of the golfing accomplishments of his fellow eighth-grader, Clay said he was impressed, but he also had reservations. “He’s a 14-year-old playing with grown men,” Henry said. “That’s too much pressure.” Kid Wisdom 101.
And so it’s a delicate balancing act, not just being Guan Tianlang, but watching him, too. All you can hope for is that his remarkable golf, like Mozart’s childhood compositions, comes from someplace deep inside him and that he’s playing the game for the joy it brings him. When Wie was 13, she said she looked forward to Christmas and her birthday, because she didn’t have to play golf on those days.
In New Orleans, between shots on the driving range, Guan’s father, Hanwen, was cleaning his son’s clubs with a little steel brush. That brought to mind how B.J. Wie once sprayed insect repellent on his daughter’s legs while she conducted interviews.
But in other ways Guan seems nothing like Wie, another off-the-charts golf prodigy. Wie at 14 was getting her dreamy swing perfected by David Ledbetter, and tour caddies often carried her bag and dispensed their advice. Guan’s caddie in New Orleans was a local who volunteered his services, and Guan has the loopy swing of a kid who is figuring things out for himself. Wie’s collisions with golf’s rules as a teenager suggested she did not appreciate the elemental role the rule book plays in the game. Guan’s gracious, stoic acceptance of his one-shot, slow-play penalty at the Masters revealed a vast reservoir of maturity and understanding.
Anyway, what would you do if you had a 14-year-old with Guan’s talent? You’d surely do what his parents are doing, helping him go where he wants to go. Guan earned his trip to Augusta by winning the Asia-Pacific Amateur. But he surely didn’t get to that event alone.
The golf teacher Bill Harmon, son of the 1948 Masters champion Claude Harmon, loves Guan’s sui generis swing and what it says about him. (It’s inside going back and severely rerouted at the top. He releases the club early — a distance killer — and the overall swing is somewhat out of rhythm.) “It’s loaded with personality,” Harmon said. Asked what he would change about it, he said, “Not much.”
“I watched the kid at Augusta,” Harmon added. “So much poise, discipline, composure, nerve. Intelligence. All that is so much more important than having a perfect swing. He already has the stuff you can’t teach.”
At Augusta, while signing autographs, Guan was asked to date his signature. He said, “Here you do month, day, year, right?” In China, the date is written year, month, day. In Chinese culture, things tend to go from the general to the specific.
Asked what kind of golfer the kid might be at 17, Harmon replied, “I have no idea.”
The mystery of potential, there’s no app for that.