Tianlang Guan has no one else to blame for slow-play penalty

April 13, 2013

AUGUSTA, Ga. — The problem with being 14 years old, as anybody who has ever been 14 years old can tell you, is that you can tell people you're 17, and you can try to act like you're 25, and you can even do some things better than a 30-year-old … but you're still just 14 years old, and sooner or later, somebody will let you know it.

Tianlang Guan, we feel your teenage pain. We've been there, dude. Well, not there, on the back nine at Augusta National on Friday of Masters week, getting whacked with an embarrassing slow-play penalty. But we've been 14. We had to tell girls we didn't have a driver's license and friends we were grounded.

The stroke penalty was harsh, and it seems unfair. It put Guan, the phenom from China, in danger of missing the cut. (He ended up making the cut right on the number.)

But it was correct. Guan was warned three times (more on that in a minute). If there is one thing we know about golf (and Augusta National), it's that the rules are unbendable.

Sometimes in life, you get that creepy, uncomfortable feeling that somebody is going to release a statement. And on Friday afternoon, it happened. Fred Ridley, the chairman of the competition committees, released this:

"Tianlang Guan was assessed a one-shot penalty for violation of Rule 6-7 of the Rules of Golf and the Tournament's Pace of Play Policy. His group, which included Ben Crenshaw and Matteo Manassero, was deemed out of position on No. 10. Guan began being timed on Hole 12 and received his first warning on Hole 13 after his second shot. In keeping with the applicable rules, he was penalized following his 2nd shot on the 17th hole when he again exceeded the 40 second time limit by a considerable margin."

So much of what happens here at Augusta National is implied. There are no signs that say NO ADVERTISING; it's just understood. And that statement implied, quite clearly, that the ruling would stand for eternity, suckers.

Guan exceeded the 40-second time limit by a considerable margin. Officially, he was warned once. But he was effectively warned three times: Once on 10, when the group was deemed out of position; again on 12, when Guan started to be timed; and then after his second shot on 13, when he received that first official warning.

Would another player have been hit with this penalty? Well, that's complicated. Another player would know how to walk that line without crossing it. PGA Tour players play every round understanding the slow-play rules. They know when they are on the clock. Some of them push the limits — and their peers complain about slow play — but they rarely if ever get penalized. They know what they can do, and what they can't.

Tianlang Guan didn't know. He told ESPN that he kept going back and forth between clubs because of the changing winds, and that cost him.

It's easy to blame the rules official, John Paramor. And I guess it would be easy to somehow blame Augusta National, because Guan is an outsider at the ultimate insider's course. But the fact is, Augusta National has been exceptionally accommodating to Guan. He has been playing the course for weeks. He has gotten the full star treatment. You can't pin this one on the club.

As for Paramor: It is not his job to be gentle to a 14-year-old. He is there to enforce the rules. Slow-play rules don't serve the slow golfer; they serve the rest of the field.

Crenshaw, a two-time Masters champion, said he was "sick" about the penalty, and that the wind made club selection a challenge for everybody. But he also said, "There's no question he played slowly at times."

Manassero said, "We all feel sorry, but this is the way professional golf goes, and he's going to be here … by the time he comes here, he's going to be ready and he's going to have fixed that particular thing."

Manassero was given several chances to say the penalty was unfair. He wouldn't do it. He did say this, though: "If I would have took more time on 16, I probably would have saved two shots, as well." He didn't take more time, I presume, because he knew he was being timed. And the double bogey he made at 16 dropped him to five over par, when a par would have put Manassero comfortably in under the cut line.

These rules are part of competition at this level — just as gallery movement and changing wind conditions are. I feel terrible for Guan. He is a 14-year-old who got put in his place in front of the world. But it's part of the deal he made when he showed up this week.

"It is still a wonderful experience for me," he told ESPN. " I respect the decision."

I wish I'd handled punishment that well when I was 14.