By Vartan Kupelian, PGATOUR.COM Correspondent
AUGUSTA, Ga. - Mark O’Meara won the Masters Tournament 15 years ago. The victory came on April 12, 1998.
Tianlang Guan was born on Oct. 25, 1998.
This week, O’Meara will appear in the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club for the 29th time.
When Tianlang tees it up at at 12:24 p.m. on Thursday alongside Ben Crenshaw and Matteo Manassero, it will be for the first time. At age 14, he will become the youngest competitor ever to play in the Masters. The teenager from China earned his place in the Masters field by winning the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship in November. Manassero was previously the youngest participant at Augusta National as a 16-year-old in 2010.
Call it youth being served. Call it the evolution of golf as a global game. Or just say that golf is going places it’s never gone before.
Tianlang had the honor and privilege of playing practice rounds at Augusta National with Crenshaw and Tom Watson, both two-time Masters winners. Tianlang also played nine holes with Tiger Woods and Dustin Johnson at Augusta National. Tianlang’s pairing for Wednesday’s Par 3 Contest is three-time Masters champion Nick Faldo.
O’Meara can only marvel at how young athletes, in staggering numbers, are embracing the game. At the same time, the game, its champions and its institutions are embracing the youngsters.
“You see the youth of today and you see how golf has grown,” O’Meara said. “Certainly Tiger had a huge impact. The media has had a huge impact. The fact that the media has spent more time around the game of golf, has written and talked about the game of golf, and you have these young players starting at such an amazing age and playing at such a high level.”
It was three years ago that O’Meara, who also won the Claret Jug as the Open Champion in his career-defining 1998 season, played for the first time with another precocious golfer. It was in the first two rounds in Dubai.
“He was 19 years old,” O’Meara said. “He hadn't won yet on the European Tour. I told the media, ‘Hey, this kid is 19, he is special.’ Sure enough, he's kind of lived up to that.”
That kid was Rory McIlroy, who rose to No. 1 in the world until Tiger Woods’ regained the spot three weeks ago at Bay Hill. McIlroy has slipped behind Woods at No. 2 but O’Meara, who knows a thing or two about young phenoms as the mentor to Woods in his early days on the PGA TOUR, has no reservations about McIlroy.
“I know he hasn't played as well lately,” O’Meara said. “He's a young man, got plenty of time. This young 14-year-old, it will be an unbelievable dream.”
O’Meara played in his first Masters in 1980 as a 23-year-old amateur. He was the reigning U.S. Amateur champion.
“I was way out of my element,” said O’Meara, who shot 80-81 and missed the cut. “I wasn't that good of a player even though I won the U.S. Amateur. I remember driving out, down Magnolia Lane on Friday, and my father was in the car. He said, ‘Are you okay?’”
O’Meara’s response was a tepid, “Yeah, I'm all right.” His father tried to console the young O’Meara.
“I said, ‘Dad, you have to understand something,’” O’Meara said. “’I'm an amateur. I know my part in the game. And no matter what happens, I got to play in the Masters one time. Whether I become a professional golfer or not, I got to play at Augusta one time.’ And 18 years later, what happened happened.”
What happened is that he won the Masters in 1998, making birdie on three of the final four holes, including the 17th and 18th.
When O’Meara returned to Augusta before this year’s Shell Houston Open for a couple of days of practice, the reminders of what he accomplished 15 years ago were everywhere.
“I was floating on Cloud Nine,” he recalled. “Forty-one years old. I remember '98, how I felt going in there, not hitting it good, not confident, not putting good, scraping around in the practice rounds thinking I just want to make the cut… (I’m) 41, I just want to make the cut. Make the cut.”
As his play improved and his confidence was restored, the objective changed.
“Now I just want to make the top 24,” he thought to himself. “Maybe I can come back next year. Boom, I'm in the last group. Boom, I got to come in and talk to the media. You're on the list, best players to have never won a Major. Boom, there I was Sunday afternoon final group with Fred Couples, make two putts on the last two holes and I get the Green Jacket put on me by Tiger Woods.
“It was kind of a fairly tale, icing on the cake. Then to win, to be honest, Birkdale later in the year after having chances to win The Open. I only felt if I had one Major to win, that would have been it, an Open Championship. Coming close a couple different times, playing with Finchie (Ian Baker Finch) in '91 at Birkdale in the final group and then to win again.”
It was a long time ago but at the same time not very long at all. After all, Guan Tianlang wasn’t even born yet and this week the kid from China is playing in the Masters himself.