AUGUSTA, Ga. — Thursday afternoon at Augusta National, the galleries were abuzz wherever Tianlang Guan went. As he walked confidently down the lush fairways of Augusta National, you couldn’t go 50 yards without overhearing someone whisper: “Oh, that’s the kid. That 14-year-old kid from China.”
Everybody had heard of “the kid” in the lead-up to the 77th Masters, the adolescent prodigy who was born a year after Tiger Woods won his first green jacket. Qualifying for Augusta in November, when he won the Asia-Pacific Amateur, Guan became by far the youngest player to compete at the Masters, two years younger than Matteo Manassero was in 2010. But nothing about his first round Thursday showed his age.
“I’m telling you, he played like a veteran today,” said 61-year-old legend Ben Crenshaw, who played a practice round with Guan on Monday and was grouped with the youngster for the first two rounds. “He played like a journeyman, like a 28-year-old journeyman who’s been around the block many, many times. He played a beautiful round of golf.”
Nevermind that Guan finished up as the low amateur by three strokes; Guan’s 1-over 73 put him even with Graeme McDowell and Keegan Bradley and ahead of defending Masters champion Bubba Watson after Day 1.
“It’s like a dream come true,” Guan said. “To play some good golf today just feels great.”
The young phenom, unlike most teenagers, isn’t prone to overstatement or overexcitement. He admitted being nervous on the first tee, but at no point in his round did any of that show. When he overshot the green on the par-3 sixth, he feathered a perfect chip just over a ridge, soft enough not to run down a wicked slope, and saved par. It was a shot that even prompted Crenshaw to applaud.
“Oh, and what about 17? Did you see that shot, down that hill?” Crenshaw said after the round, recalling a similar chip Guan took in the face of a harsh downhill slope. “[He has] beautiful, soft hands, and correct method. The fundamentals are there, but also lots of confidence in those shots.”
Guan has no short-game coach, according to his father, Hanwen, just hours and hours of self-perfecting practice on his home course near Guangzhou, China. Every day — be it Christmas Eve or Chinese New Year — the youngster is out on the course. When he was just a kid (well, even more of a kid) he could spend hours just on the green. “I would go out for a round, and he would be on the putting green,” recalled Victor Fong, an old family friend who ran Dragon Lake Golf Club, where Guan began playing at age 6, “and when I come back on No. 9, he’s still there.”
It’s that sort of work ethic and discipline that has produced one of the loveliest strokes in the game. “It’s textbook, all of his angles and his tempo, everything,” an observing golf pro in the gallery remarked. “I wish I could take a video of him and then just show all of my students: that’s what it’s supposed to look like.”
Still, Guan doesn’t get too much length off his driver; he was 85th out of 93 in driving distance (averaging 275.5 yards) Thursday on a day when the course played short. But he is, after all, only 14 and still growing into his 5’ 9” frame. Soaking wet, Guan might be 140 pounds. “Still no man power yet,” said John Ho, a family friend and owner of Guan’s home course, Lion Lake Country Club.
Coming into Augusta, many expected that the 7,435-yard course would exact its toll on Guan, but there were several instances when he actually overshot greens. Perhaps that was youthful adrenaline pumping, or the result of some added strength. Since qualifying for the Masters, Guan added rudimentary weightlifting into his training regimen. Ho said he’s added some 20 yards to his drives over the last three months. Looking at the thin young man, though, one could hardly tell.
His driver, however, was never going to be his way to the top. It’s his delicate short game and spectacular putting that made him the talk of Augusta on Day 1. Averaging just 1.39 putts per hole, Guan ranked second overall in that category and his feel for the greens was obvious. He could thank Ho for some of that. After getting the Masters invite, Ho had one of the practice greens at Lion Lake mowed way down to try and help Guan get used to the exquisitely manicured greens of Augusta National. “Very hard to maintain,” Ho said, “but worth it.” Only Guan was allowed to putt on that green, and he spent hours there. The time he put in at Lion Lake, and here in Augusta since arriving three weeks ago, paid off. On 18, he rolled in a 15-foot birdie putt from the fringe, inducing that familiar Masters roar from the crowd. That’s still a new sound to him, but it probably won’t be for long.
Does he think he can win this tournament? “I think probably not this year,” he says smiling, “but I think I can win it in the future.”
That’s it right there: youthful ambition with some veteran sense.