Tianlang Guan is golf's latest teen sensation from China; is he part of a new trend?
You would think that Tianlang Guan, a 14-year-old from China who qualified for the Masters, is a big story because he is one of a kind. Think again. The bigger story is that he is not.
He is the second 14-year-old from China to make it into a major championship in the past two years, although, to be precise, he is a few months younger than Andy Zhang was when he played in the U.S. Open at San Francisco's Olympic Club last June.
Guan seems like a bigger deal because he won a big international tournament to get here, and because we all are in more of a mood for stories at the Masters.
The larger picture is that golf is getting more global and it is getting younger, at least outside the United States. On the same day that major American golf institutions announced a major skills competition to get kids interested in playing the game, Guan was beginning a nine-hole practice round with his idol and fellow Masters entrant Tiger Woods on Monday.
And Woods came out of it really impressed. "I mean, this kid can't even play high school golf. He's not in high school yet. So it's hard to believe," the four-time Masters champion said.
"When I was 14, I was trying to play more [junior] tournaments and I was running track and cross-country, you know, trying to get homework done. I couldn't imagine playing in not just a tour event, but the Masters."
Other very accomplished pros couldn't imagine it, either. Matt Kuchar recalled that when he played in the Masters as a 19-year-old amateur, his biggest concern was stopping his hands from shaking long enough to balance the ball on a tee. Adam Scott remembered thinking it was a big deal at 14 to be beating 17-year-olds in junior tournaments at home in Australia.
Rory McIlroy, seemingly as precocious as they come in golf, mused, "He could potentially play in, I don't know, 60 Masters? Yeah, it's incredible."
Guan is not new at this, having hit some impressive shots when he was 11, with Woods during a practice round in Shanghai. He was the youngest player in the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship last November, and won it, earning his trip to Augusta. "I have the confidence and I know I can play well," he said in a spirited news conference here Monday, all in English. "So I'm going to play like myself. I'm not going to try to do too much things."
The thing is, he might not be a one-time lightning strike. He might be part of a trend.
Ralph Howe, a West Sayville native who played in the Masters as the U.S. Public Links champion, now lives and teaches in China. He sees young talent come onto his lesson tee every day.
Some of his students are there because their parents want them to have a more well-rounded life, and maybe have tools to succeed in business.
"The second type are the ones who want to turn professional and become famous," Howe said in an email. "This type of student works UNBELIEVABLY hard on his or her game. No expense is spared. Some of them even drop out of school to travel and play full time."
Golf is growing in China, he said, because of the nation's increased wealth, because of the 2016 Olympics and "because it's the best game ever invented."
More youngsters in China are beginning to agree with Howe. It is fairly likely that there will be more like Guan, who make history rather than studying it.
The kid was pumping Woods for advice and information throughout their nine holes together Monday.
"And I," Woods said, "was asking him about school and stuff like that."