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The Masters

Slow Burn

Tianlang Guan's feel-good story was almost upended by a slow-play penalty. Lucky for him, it won't end there

April 12, 2013

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- So Tianlang Guan got in trouble with the grown-ups. Of course. He's a kid, he's 14, it's what kids do. But it's not like he ran dad's car into the garage door. He came in a little late, and name me a teenager who's never missed curfew.

Besides, he had a good excuse. The wind was up. The kid decided on this club, thought about it, changed to another. When the wind comes whistlin' through the pines, Augusta National causes even old-timers to consider, reconsider, and then flat guess. Hell, the newest member, Condi Rice, could've advised the rules people to cut the kid a break in the name of national security. We have enough worries with North Korea. No need tomake 1.35 billion Chinese mad at us, too.

Anyway, an hour and a half after the penalty, Guan was OK.

But it took the full hour and a half to achieve OK'ness.

In between, to quote a Beijing reporter, "The boy was upset."

Weren't we all? For the first time in Masters history, a player was penalized for slow play. The player is the youngest ever in a major championship. He is here because the Masters people jiggered their rules toopen the door wide to Asians. All those things are bad enough. Worse, the penalty put Tianlang Guan on the cut line. After two days of implausibly wonderful play and for six hours after his round, it seemed he might miss the cut by that single added shot.

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"When he came off the 18 green, he didn't understand why the penalty," Patrick You-yu Wang of Beijing's Titan Golf said. "His father and mother told him, 'Calm down, we will talk to officials and see what we will do.'"

There followed nearly an hour of closed-door conversations in the scoring area under the players' clubhouse. Rules officials and Masters tournament officials met with Guan, his parents, and the family's interpreter. The reporter Wang, after speaking to Guan's parents, said the meetings ended cordially when the parents understood that the penalty ruling would not be changed.

Not that it should have been changed. Guan was given four warnings -- at the 10th, 12th, 13th, and on the 17th tee -- before rules official John Paramor assessed the penalty following Guan's second shot at 17. Guan's group, including Ben Crenshaw and Matteo Manassero, had fallen more than a hole and a half behind. As they left the 11th green, the group ahead walked onto the 13th.

Clearly, Guan and his partners needed to hustle up -- and Paramor, the man with the stopwatch, decided Guan was the chief dawdler. Once it's your turn to hit, and once you've been warned that you're on the clock, you must pull the trigger inside the allotted 40 seconds. Failure to do that will bring Paramor into the fairway with the bad news.

I suppose the case can be made that a slow-play penalty is ridiculous in an era when slow play is the natural order of things. Unless a guy's slow play is causing other competitors in groups behind to play badly, who cares if it takes five hours to finish, or six, or seven? Everyone's playing the same course slowly. Otherwise, ordering a group to double-time it and catch up to the also-slow-but-not-quite-as-slow group ahead is important only for cosmetic reasons involving empty fairways and fans wondering where the show went.

Related: Guan not wired like rest of us

So it seems that for no reason better than the look ofthings, the Masters was willing to take from us the fun of seeing the kid play here Saturday and Sunday. Here's Ben Crenshaw a few minutes after learning of the penalty: "This isn't going to end up pretty. I'm sick. I'm sick for him. He's 14 years old, we're playing -- when you get the wind blowing out here, believe me, you're going to change your mind a lot."

When Guan emerged from the long meeting with officials, he was composed and pleasant. He said he had made no attempt to change the penalty. "Not that," he said, "just want to know why they're going to do that, and they told me. I just learned a lot from them, and they told me how to keep it faster or whatever."

As Crenshaw did, Guan cited the wind. "Today is pretty hard," he said, "because if you're timed only 40 seconds, it's pretty hard because you need to make the decision. The wind switched a lot." The most egregious of Guan's deliberations apparently came at the 16th tee after Matteo Manassero put his tee shot in the water. Though Guan knew he was on the clock -- 40 seconds to play -- he said, "I have to change clubs if the wind gusts. When I stand on the tee and I see Matteo hit the ball in the water, it's really strong into the wind. When I stand on the tee and the wind kind of calmed down, it's like a little helping."

So, downwind? Or into the wind? Who knows? Let's think about this a minute. Well, no, you can't think about it for 60 seconds. Not when you've been warned, advised, and told that the stopwatch is click-click-clicking, the 40 seconds disappearing, not even if you're a kid from China playing here for the first time.

Yes, rules are rules. And, yes, the sainted Bobby Jones, creator of the Masters, lost the 1925 U.S. Open in a playoff after calling a first-round, one-shot penalty on himself for a violation that no one else could have seen. He then refused praise for his honesty by saying, "You may as well praise a man for not robbing a bank." So it all had to go down the way it did.

Happily, it all worked out just fine. The rules, however silly this one might be, were upheld. And on the merits of his play alone, with no extraordinary dispensation, Tianlang Guan is still in the tournament. Everyone within 10 shots of leader Jason Day is in, and Guan's 73-75-148 made it on the number. Hooray.

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