AUGUSTA, Ga.—Tianlang Guan is 14 years old. But he’s not like your 14-year-old. He is about to make history as the youngest-ever competitor in the Masters -- or in any major -- and on Monday afternoon he played the back nine at Augusta National with Tiger Woods and Dustin Johnson.
“He asked me on the range if he could join our group,” Woods said. “I tell you what, he hits it good. I showed him some of the shots I play and the straj behind some of the stuff." ("Straj" is Tiger-speak for "strategy.)
Woods, who first played in his first Masters when he was 19 years old and finished 41st, came away impressed with Guan.
"The kid is good," Woods said. "He’s not even in high school yet and now he’s playing in the Masters. It’s a remarkable story.”
As if the mental challenge of navigating Augusta National’s 7,435 yards under the glaring spotlight of the world’s media and tens of thousands of patrons is not tough enough for the kid from Guangzhou, China, the eighth grader also has to complete his school homework.
“I am learning English” he said with a grin as he held court with impressive maturity in a packed interview room at Augusta in his first major press conference. Guan is not like your 14-year-old for whom conversation amounts to grunts and shrugs.
Guan qualified for the 77th Masters by winning the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship in November, and he's making the most of the opportunity. On Monday morning Guan joined 61-year-old two-time Masters champion (1984 and 1995) Ben Crenshaw for a practice round. It was a long-standing promise arranged via text messages through mutual friends. For Tuesday, Guan has lined up "Mr. Tom Watson," as Guan calls him. Nick Faldo is his partner for the Par-3 Contest, and another chat with Woods, his hero, is also on his itinerary.
“I will say when I was probably 3 or 4 years old, I was looking at him win the Masters, and it’s pretty exciting to watch him,” Guan said of Woods. “I played with him twice in the past couple years, and he gives me advice. I will say every time I play with him, I feel a lot better and give myself some confidence and it’s very good.”
Golf’s royalty has embraced this new Chinese prince. “I played with a wonderful 14-year-old boy,” Crenshaw said. “Trust me he is a lot more mature than 14. All of us were asking, what were we doing at 14? He breathes golf. He didn’t seem intimidated. He is not cocky.”
After seeing him in action, Crenshaw said he thinks Guan has a chance to make the cut this week.
“He is still growing," Crenshaw said of his 14-year-old playing partner. "He hits the ball fine, adequate. He has a good short game. With some breaks and good shots it would not surprise me to see him play the weekend.”
Crenshaw was probably being "Gentle Ben," for it would be a surprise to many if Guan broke 80. Guan didn’t hit a single green in regulation from the 10th to the 13th in that practice round. He also failed to keep his approaches on the green at the 10th and 11th, found sand at the 12th, and laid up on the 13th then flew the green. Guan was so far behind Woods and Johnson off the tee that he could have done with hailing a cab to catch up with them. It’s hardly surprising. He’s built like a bamboo shoot and only drives the ball about 250 yards. All of which means he hit a fairway wood from 220 yards into the 11th and attacked the first green from 190 yards with a hybrid. There will be learning and growing process before Guan can entertain thoughts of winning the Masters, an ambition he shared on Twitter after qualifying.
Guan sat in his press conference with an interpreter but the only time he needed her help was to untangle the gravelly burr of a Scottish reporter. Guan has been spending months at a time playing on the amateur circuit in California and Florida and his English is simple but fluent.
“He speaks helluva better English than I do Chinese,” Crenshaw said.
This week is yet another milestone in an already extraordinary young life -- one that Guan said holds no regrets that he is sacrificing normal 14-year-old things like hanging out with his school friends. Nor is he intimidated by the task ahead. “I’m not going to say that,” he said. “But I think it’s going to be a little pressure for me, but I’m not going to push myself too hard.” His ambition? “Just enjoy it.”
Guan paused before each of his answers. The impression was that it was not to compute and translate across the language barrier but to find the words in which to give polite and thoughtful replies. There is a sense of self-deprecating humor in his head, too, which will come out more with time and experience. But already Guan is composed, confidence, charming and comfortable fielding questions from the grown-ups. He’s not like your 14-year-old.