AUGUSTA, Ga. — Tianlang Guan admitted he probably won't win this year's Masters, which is probably just as well, since his teenage friends are probably not impressed by boys in green sport coats. But he did shoot a 73 in his opening round at the Masters, at age 14. It's an amazing story. To put this in context: Tiger Woods, the greatest phenom in the history of the sport, did not play the Masters until he was 19. In his first six rounds, over two years, he shot 72, 72, 77, 72, 75, 75.
So a 73 at Augusta National at age 14 is astounding. Guan beat Ian Poulter and Hunter Mahan by three strokes and Bubba Watson, the defending champion, by two. It's an amazing story. I keep saying that so I don't throw up.
Fourteen years old, playing in the Masters.
Is this healthy?
Does he realize that what seems to be the best thing in his life may ultimately destroy him?
In his press conference afterward, Guan was polite, confident and unfazed. Somebody asked him if he has fun playing golf.
"I'm having fun so far this week," he said, and it seemed clear that he did not really understand the depth and importance of the question.
He could not understand. He is 14 years old, and he probably has no idea how his life can get away from him.
He probably doesn't realize that the government in his native China may start viewing him as a political tool, like the machine-produced basketball players and gymnasts, capable of boosting national pride by whipping the rest of the world. And he probably doesn't realize that to some in the U.S., he is an oil well. He can make golf popular in China. That would make golf equipment popular in China. And that could mean billions.
And I'm sure he doesn't realize that his golf career might be peaking this week. I hope that's not the case. But Tianlang Guan may find that the question he was asked Thursday-"Is it fun for you?"-is not so easy to answer.
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Shortly before Guan drained his birdie putt on 18 to get to one over, Tiger Woods finished his round of two-under 70. He thought it could have been a little better — the soft greens surprised him a bit. But still, 70 was fine with Woods. In all but one of his four Masters wins, he opened with 70. He is hitting the ball well enough to win a fifth green jacket, and he knows it.
When his round ended, Woods did a few quick sessions with the media ("good, solid day … it's a good start"), then walked over to the practice green.
He dropped six balls and putted each one from the same spot, four feet from the hole. He putted 36 consecutive times from that spot — on some of them, he only used his right hand. Woods made all 36 putts. It was a small but necessary bit of work if Woods wants to win this Masters. He laughed and chatted with his caddie, Joe LaCava, as he did it.
A few months ago, as I reported a magazine piece about Woods, I visited the Tiger Woods Learning Center in Anaheim, Calif., the focus of all the work that the Tiger Woods Foundation does. There is a statue of Tiger and his father in golf gear near the entrance, and there is a golf facility in the back. But the Learning Center is not about golf.
The Foundation prepares kids for college, then helps them pay for it. It is impressive and important work. Woods can afford to be generous, of course, but his chosen charity work is telling.
In his early years as a pro, Woods performed at golf clinics before his PGA Tour events. But after a few years, he realized that spreading the golf gospel just wasn't that meaningful. It would mostly produce a lot of mediocre golfers and a few good ones. Woods shifted his attention to education, and in building his learning centers (there are also two in Washington, D.C, one in Philadelphia and one in Florida), he tries to give kids the same safe, creative environment he had on the golf course as a child.
He recognized that most kids would not get the same things out of golf that he did. You can't teach that passion, and Woods never had to learn it. He has never tired of the game. That is so much harder than it sounds.
Most 14-year-olds don't know what they want to do with their life. Tianlang Guan thinks he does, but he won't know for sure for another 10 or 20 years, when he looks back at this Masters and figures out where his historic childhood fits into his adulthood.
After Guan finished talking, another one-time phenom, Sergio Garcia, completed his round. At 19, Garcia finished a shot back of Woods at the 1999 PGA Championship, at Medinah. That seemed like the beginning of an Ali-Frazier or Magic-Bird rivalry in golf. Garcia hit one shot with his eyes closed. It is still the most famous shot he has ever hit. He still has not won a major. He is 33.
Garcia has had a wonderful career. But something has not quite clicked for him in majors, and it's probably because when he feels a drop of rain, he thinks the sky is spitting on him. Garcia seems to think he is cursed. He complains about bad luck instead of overcoming it.
As a perpetually smiling 19-year-old at that PGA, Garcia was pure fun. He played like he knew Tiger was supposed to win, and he didn't care.
After that, Garcia was supposed to win. Phenoms aren't allowed to be phenoms forever. Garcia is tied for the lead here with a first-round 66, and it's natural to wonder if this is finally his time. In the first answer of his press conference, Sergio Garcia said, "Sometimes it comes out better than others, but today it was one of those good days. And you know, let's enjoy it while it lasts."