Like the 14-year-old Chinese amateur golf prodigy Guan Tianlang, who made the cut at the Masters two weeks ago as the youngest contestant in tournament history, Nick Faldo was also 14 when the Masters conferred a life-altering experience on him.
In 1971 the young Master Faldo, inspired by watching Jack Nicklaus, told his mother that he wanted to take up golf and become a professional golfer. Eight years later he played in his first Masters, and 11 years later he won the first of his three Green Jackets.
It will be interesting to consider those two timelines as we tune in this week -- and you know you will -- to watch the gifted Guan playing in the Zurich Classic of New Orleans. It may help us wrap our minds around the significance, and possibly the appropriateness, of an eighth-grade golfer stepping inside the ropes to compete against a field of seasoned PGA TOUR professionals for the second time in three weeks.
Let’s first factor in the considered opinion of Sir Nicholas Faldo, OBE, World Golf Hall of Famer (1997), six time major champion, winner of 30 European Tour events and nine PGA TOUR events, 11-time Ryder Cup team member, CBS-TV lead golf analyst and, among other things, the founder in 1996 of the Faldo Series of golf tournaments.
The Faldo Series has given Faldo, 55, an objective look at how to view the progress of young players. The series has grown to 40 annual golf events in 30 countries for golfers in age groupings from under-16s to under-21s, and includes worldwide star Rory McIlroy, 23, LPGA star Yani Tseng, 24, and three-time European Tour winner Nick Dougherty, 31, among past series winners.
First, on the question of Guan’s performance at the Masters, Faldo was effusive. “I thought it was phenomenal,” he said. “For a 14-year-old, on that golf course, to do what he did, was incredible. I didn’t think a 14-year-old could make the cut. His whole demeanor, the way he handled himself, I thought that was way beyond the expectations anyone could have of a 14-year-old boy.”
As to whether Guan should be playing in another PGA TOUR event so soon, Faldo had no problem with the decision: “Sure, he can play TOUR events,” he said.
And on the big question about any short-term plans for Guan turning professional, Faldo is unequivocal: “I think he should stay an amateur. He needs to keep winning, to get bored winning because you’ve just won everything. Then move over. I don’t think just because you’re a sensation at 14 or 16 you should be out on TOUR. I really don’t.”
During a month he spent in China earlier this year, Faldo had time to observe and talk to Guan about his golf game and his plans. At Mission Hills in Shenzhen, China, before Guan and his parents traveled to Augusta to prepare for the Masters, Guan received the Mission Hills Trophy for leading the Faldo Series the previous year.
“He’s got growing to do -- physically, mentally, all those things,” Faldo said. “There’s absolutely no rush. Golf is a sport that we can view as a 20-year window competing at the highest level. Do you get started at 14 to go to 34? Do you get started at 20 to go to 40? I think that’s the smartest thing.
“If he’s won everything by the time he’s 18, then, yeah, maybe. Once you’ve cleaned up as an amateur, and you really are the best, then you think about doing it. You get the opportunity to play in pro events and you can really gauge yourself. And if you’re playing nicely as an amateur, finishing top 10 in pro events, well then, yeah, maybe there’s a decision to make about turning pro.”
Because of its history as the club co-founded by Bob Jones, considered the greatest amateur in the sport’s history, the Augusta National Golf Club has always had a keen interest in identifying and promoting the world’s best amateur players by issuing earned exemptions into the field at the Masters. Guan earned his exemption. He was the youngest player competing in the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship. He was ranked 290th in the world amateur rankings. By holing a critical 6-footer for par on the 72nd hole to secure the victory, Guan was catapulted into the world spotlight. So far, he has reacted to its glare with aplomb.
As he glided through the Masters with blissful serenity, tipping his cap to applauding patrons, holing putts from Atlanta to Aiken, dead-handing soft, seeing-eye chips and pitches that drew immediate and enthusiastic applause from fellow competitor Ben Crenshaw, a two-time champion at the Masters who was the low amateur at the Masters 40 years ago.
“There’s magic in those hands,” Crenshaw, who should know, told John Hopkins, the Welsh golf writer and for many years the golf correspondent for the Sunday Times.
Of that there can be no dispute. Guan is a legitimate short-game wizard. He finished the week at the Masters tied for first in putting, averaged just 1.39 putts per hole and did not have a 3-putt -- or a score higher than bogey -- for the 72 holes. What that tells you is Guan already has a very important skill, something that many TOUR pros take a lifetime to learn: he knows how to score.
He also knows how to get the most out of his 5-foot-9, 135-pound frame. He was the shortest hitter in the Masters field, no surprise and probably no long-term concern. This week during practice rounds in New Orleans at the TPC Louisiana, where he is likely to again be the shortest hitter, Guan took on the 476-yard, par-4 sixth hole into a headwind. He had a 220-yard second shot, which he took care of with a 4-wood to about 20 feet. He made it for birdie.
Right now, there is not much point dredging up the list of usual suspects who, way too young, either had professional golf foisted on them by stage parents or hangers-on who had their own, and not the player’s, best interests at heart. The stories aren’t pretty. You can look them up. There is no reason to believe that Guan’s father, Han Wen, who introduced his son to the game when Tianlang was 4 years old, will repeat the mistakes of parents who rushed their adolescent children into the professional ranks too soon.
All outward signs indicate Guan is happy, well-adjusted, extremely mature and all about golf. He is, in other words, the ideal role model for kids in a huge, still untapped portion of the worldwide golf market in the Far East.
Faldo recalled a recent encounter at a clinic he hosted in mainland China as part of a week of instruction. He was doing an exhibition with Guan when approached by an 8-year-old who spoke no English but seemed to know exactly who Faldo and Guan were and why they were there. Faldo could not recall the child’s name, but vividly recalled his personality.
“His name translated to ‘Big and Strong,’ and, obviously, he’s 4 feet tall,” Faldo said. “We did everything by sign language. He followed us around and became our little mascot for the weekend. I’d just point high, and he’d hit a high wedge. I’d point low and he’d hit it low. He was just watching, doing his own thing, and you could just see him thinking, ‘That’s what I want to do when I get big.’
“It’s what I said years ago about places like China. As soon as they get a hero, watch out. And now, my goodness, their hero is only 14 years old.”
Larry Dorman is a freelance columnist for PGATOUR.COM. His views do not necessarily represent the views of the PGA TOUR.