That Kid At The Driving Range
A golf writer's intersection with young Guan Tianlang (Langly's) incipient and amazing golf journey
When the remarkable news spread that 14-year-old Guan Tianlang (Langly) won the Asia-Pacific Amateur Golf Championship to qualify to play in the 2013 Masters, many marveled at the historic significance of a Chinese boy still too young to drive competing on Augusta National's pine tree-lined fairways. I thought of the warm, engaging boy with the majestic swing who routinely occupied the driving range stall next to my own.
I met Langly this past summer at Angeles National Golf club in Los Angles (just northwest of Pasadena), where the young man would practice daily accompanied by his dad, Guan Han Wen, a medical doctor in China. Indeed, Angeles National stands as not only one of the best publicly accessible courses in the Los Angeles area, but one with arguably the best all-grass driving ranges this side of the Palm Springs/Coachella Valley's myriad of world-class golf facilities.
It certainly wasn't unusual, then, for me to find several talented junior golfers hitting balls on the range on any one of the hot and dry L.A. summer days I'd trudge away from my writing desk to do the same. Nor was the fact that many of them were Asian American kids, with great swings, wearing immaculate golf apparel, and using the latest and best golf clubs from Nike, TaylorMade, Callaway, PING (or other gear from the top name brand manufacturers), and dutiful moms and/or dads either waiting patiently for them to finish hitting balls or actively teaching them (usually with surprisingly well-schooled and sophisticated technical knowledge) how to do so.
Langly and his dad were just one of those kid/parent duos that I found myself practicing next to one day. That they were conversing in Chinese signaled to me both that not only weren't they Angelinos (the name we in the City of Angels go by), but also that they may appreciate a friendly gesture by a resident range rat regular like me. So I waited until the young man hit another ball and said hello.
Now I've been around teenagers (and I mean American teenagers) long enough to know not to expect more than one or two syllable answers to any question I might ask them, or hope to garner maybe two or three consecutive seconds at a time oftheir undivided attention. But this kid was different.
He immediately stopped hitting balls extended his hand to meet mine, then told me his name and that he was from China. He was spending the summer in the L.A. area, he said, to practice his golf and to play in junior and amateur tournaments.
I struggle to remember names like John and Jessica after hearing a new person introduce themselves to me, so I knew that with Guan Tianlang I would have no chance. So I asked him if there was a nickname or name the other kids over here called him, and he said, "Langly." Next I introduced myself to his dad, Han Wen Guan, whose English, actually, isn't as good as his son's, but whose friendliness and warm nature struck me as things his son obviously inherited. I think I was more interested in getting back to my bucket of balls than I was concerned about interrupting Langly's practice, so I just smiled, said "Nice to meet you both," and went back to trying to make a better shoulder turn with my driver swing. As I packed my clubs up for the day and heading toward the parking lot, I waved goodbye to my new friends, and was surprised to hear young Langly politely shout from a distance, "Have a nice day." I was impressed.
But the truth is I really didn't pay that much attention to the kid's golf swing at first. That would soon change, because each day that I came to practice (and I tried to get a bucket or two in each day, not only for my own improvement, but also because in addition to writing about it I do some teaching of the golf swing, so I always feel the need to explore and investigate some of the swing's latest theories and methods), Langly and his dad would greet me with warm smiles, which like magnets drew me into a hitting bay closer and closer to theirs.
There was a moment, I recall, when I realized that Langly didn't miss a shot, and that the balls shot off of the face of each club he was swinging like a rocket, and that his slow, long, deliberate and incredibly rhythmic swing had a machine-like repetitive quality to it. I hadn't seen the likes of such a precise motion since attending a new club launch at Callaway Golf or TaylorMade in Carlsbad, CA (about 100 miles down the coast), where company employees would attach a newly-designed driver to an Iron Byron hitting machine to demonstrate a performance aspect of its technology. Viewing footage of Ben Hogan's swing revealed the same kind of repetitive magic.