Ben Crenshaw gives advice to 14-year-old Tianglang Guan during their practice round on Monday.
By Helen Ross, PGATOUR.COM
AUGUSTA, Ga. -- An interpreter was on standby but 14-year-old Guan Tianglang insisted on answering every question in English, even the lone one offered in his native Chinese.
His poise was remarkable, just like the golf game that earned Guan an invitation to play in the Masters. When he tees it up on Thursday, the eighth-grader will be the youngest player to ever compete at Augusta National.
Guan earned his spot when he won the Asia-Pacific Amateur, the tournament Augusta National and the R&A created in 2008 expressly to grow the game and spotlight talent like his. Guan is more than two years younger than Matteo Manassero was when he played in the 2010 Masters at the age of 16 years and 11 months. He is also the youngest ever to play in any major championship, eclipsing countryman Andy Zhang at last year's U.S. Open by a matter of days.
Guan has been in the United States for the last three weeks now, playing Augusta National six or seven times. Safe to say, though, the teen never toured the iconic course with as high-powered friends as the ones he has lined up this week -- Ben Crenshaw, Tiger Woods, Dustin Johnson, Tom Watson and Nick Faldo, who will be his partner in the Par-3 Contest.
Guan went out with Woods, his idol and this week's prohibitive favorite, and the big-hitting Johnson on Monday afternoon. Guan, who was born at sunrise and whose name means "beautiful, sunny day," first became interested in the game when Woods won his second Masters in 2001 -- and the teen was 3.
"It's frightening to think that he was born after I won my first Masters," Woods said three weeks ago after making the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard his third win of the season. "... It's exciting that I've inspired kids to play and not just here in the States, but obviously in China and around the world."
Monday marked the third time the two had played together. "He gives me many advice and I will say every time I play with him I feel a lot better and give myself confidence," said Guan, who had picked Crenshaw's brain in the morning.
At 5-foot-9 and just 143 pounds, Guan averages roughly 250 yards off the tee. Augusta National, meanwhile, measures 7,435 yards. Even so, Guan doesn't see his lack of length as a "really serious problem" but he acknowledges he'll be hitting hybrids and fairway woods into some of the par 4s. His short game is a strength, though, and it will certainly be tested this week.
"I'm not going to push myself too hard," Guan said. "I'm trying to just enjoy my game, play my best and hopefully play some good score."
Matt Kuchar knows what it's like to play in the Masters as an amateur. Of course, he was an old man at 19 and had earned his spot by winning the 1997 U.S. Amateur. He played with Woods, who was defending what was an historic 12-stroke win the previous year, in the first two rounds.
"I can remember ... the first tee, being glad I got the ball to balance on the tee -- being so nervous that that was like a big moment that it just stayed down without falling down and me trembling so bad that I didn't knock the ball off," said Kuchar, who won last year's PLAYERS Championship and the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship earlier this year.
"... I could have been too young to know what I was really in for. At 14, you may be too young to know what you're in for. That's amazing."
Steve Stricker agrees. He knew Guan was a teenager but his youth hit home when Stricker realized his daughter Bobbi was the same age.
"And I've been telling my daughter the same with this Lydia Ko who has been playing on the LPGA Tour, I think she's 15, and that's a year older than my daughter," Stricker said. "I just can't imagine being that young and competing at this level at such an early age. ... I'll be interested to see how he does and how he handles it and how he plays. It's remarkable that he's even playing."
As talent is surfacing at a younger and younger age -- after all, a 12-year-old recently played in a European Tour event -- Stricker doesn't see the need to create any restrictions.
"If a person or little boy or little girl is good enough to compete at a high level, why should you penalize them for being young, and it just gives them an opportunity to compete at that level and gain more and more experience and confidence," Stricker said. "And maybe they, you know, come out and be the next Tiger Woods."