Some Kind Of Wonderful
At 14, Tianlang Guan's Masters debut proved he's not wired like the rest of us
AUGUSTA, Ga. -- He's 14 years old, the kid from China. Tianlang Guan said he was nervous on the first tee. So nervous at being the youngest player in Masters history that he hit his first tee shot three inches right of the fairway's exact middle. On the 18th tee, five hours of nerves later, he hit his last tee shot four inches left of dead-center.
"It must help to have 14-year-old nerves," Ben Crenshaw said. "He played like a 28-year-old journeyman who's been around the block many, many times." Crenshaw has won the Masters twice. He's 62. He has putters older than Guan's father. He knows around the block.
The kid rolled in a 20-footer at the 18th for his day's fourth birdie and a round of 73, one over par. He's three shots behind Tiger Woods. He's small and solid, 5-foot-8, 140. His face carries no trace of the world's worries.
Crenshaw's wizened caddy, Carl Jackson, said of Guan, "You think he's an adult -- until you look at him. There's a baby over there."
I'm by the putting green, just before Guan tees it up. A buddy asks what I was doing at 14. I was asking Louise Britton to go to the show with me, 15 cents a ticket. I'd made a dollar that week caddying.
Crenshaw had lunch with Guan's uncle early in the week and talked about the kid's passion for the game. "Other than school," Crenshaw said, "it's only golf." He's from Guang Zhen, the third largest city in mainland China, behind Beijing and Shanghai. He's the son of a doctor who took him to the golf course when he was 4 years old. No Louises in his life.
I'm by the fourth green. I hear a kid say, "I'm 14, too." His name is John Carter. He's from Hilton Head, S.C. Best he's ever shot, he says, is one or two under. What does an American kid outside the ropes think of the Chinese kid walking on golf's grandest stage? "Luckiest guy in the world," John Carter said.
China's most famous golfer, before Thursday, was Lian-Wei Zhang, who missed the cut in the 2004 Masters on rounds of 77, 72. Now a dozen journalists from China have made the trek to Georgia, only four months after Guan qualified for the Masters by winning the Asia-Pacific Amateur. "We have the most golf writers from China ever," said Patrick You-yu Wang, a golf company executive in Beijing. "But is Tianlang the 'most famous'? We are kind of waiting to see. If he makes the cut, yes."
I'm along the fifth fairway. I'm thinking how to describe Guan's swing. He doesn't drive it with the longest hitters, but all day he drove it past Crenshaw and alongside the former Italian prodigy, Matteo Manaserro, suddenly ancient at 19. Guan takes the driver back inside, is flat at the top, and comes to impact in an instant. "Looks like Hogan," said a man who made a life's study of Ben Hogan. I moved away, lest lightning strike the blasphemer. Then the kid put a drive to the crest of the big hill.
This is not your normal kid. He'd already hit a driver on the short, downwind third hole when Crenshaw and Manassero had chosen cautious irons. He made birdie there with a dancing wedge and 18-foot putt. Then, at the par-3 sixth, Guan did stuff that can't be taught, a piece of magic around the green that once was the signature of another prodigy, Ben Crenshaw, a PGA Tour winner at age 21. Guan put his tee shot at the back right of the green, maybe 12 feet from the surface. He had a downhill lie to the green slightly above his feet, the flagstick 15 feet on the green. He couldn't get it up in the air, the ball would never stop. Guan walked to the fringe and looked at a spot there. With his 60-degree wedge, he bumped a shot low into the small rise, maybe six inches short of the spot he'd targeted. One bounce and onto the surface, softly. To a foot and a half. As Guan walked onto the green, Crenshaw tucked his putter under his arm and clapped in appreciation of what he'd seen a 14-year-old kid do.