Boy wonder Guan wows his elders with 73

Amateur Guan Tianlang, of China, celebrates after a birdie putt on the 18th green during the first round of the Masters.

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Patrick Spencer, a sixth-grader from Atlanta, stood outside the ropes by the practice green watching Tianlang Guan prepare for his Masters debut. Spencer, whose grandfather is a member at Augusta, has plans to start playing tournament golf this year. The 12-year-old’s favorite player is Bubba Watson, but he spent part of his Thursday afternoon watching a fellow middle-schooler delight crowds with a trusty hybrid and the touch of an angel. Just as well, because “the kid” beat Watson by two strokes.

“He just started at (age) 4, and 10 years later he’s in a pro event,” said Spencer, underplaying the fact that we’re talking about the Masters.

The biggest story of the day out of Augusta wasn’t on the leaderboard. The story that will have fans and pros alike talking long after the Georgia pines have cast their tall shadows across this magical property is that of 14-year-old Guan, the Asia-Pacific Amateur champion from China who opened with a 1-over 73.

When Guan walked up the 18th hole, the crowd rose to its feet for a warm standing ovation, and Guan doffed his cap in appreciation. Nevermind the fact that the ovation was for the legendary Crenshaw, a two-time Masters champion. Guan was enjoying the moment.

With his ball sitting just off the green, Guan, using a belly putter, rolled in a 14-foot birdie putt to cap a magnificent round. He pumped his right fist and, again, took off his cap with his right hand, as if he’d done this routine a million times.

“I'm telling you, he played like a veteran today,” said Crenshaw, who rolled in his own birdie putt on the 18th to give the crowd a perfect blend of past and future.

“He played like a journeyman, a 28-year-old journeyman who has been around the block and made a ton of cuts. He played a beautiful round of golf.”

Matteo Manassero, a 19-year-old Italian who three years ago set the record for youngest to play the Masters, rounded out the group. However, Manassero was yesterday’s news, upstaged by a kid from China who might as well have been playing in an AJGA invitational, his body looked so calm.

In fact, the only hint that Guan felt a flurry of nerves in his flat belly came on the first tee, when he took off his glove and rubbed his hands thoroughly on his towel, as if playing in pouring rain. He proceeded to then stripe his drive down the center of the fairway.

“At 14, he just doesn’t get it,” said a fan as he walked away from the first tee.

There’s some truth to that statement, given that Guan can’t possibly appreciate the magnitude of what he has already accomplished. How could he? He came to Augusta with homework and has his mom pack milk and bananas in his on-course snack pack.

Not once during Guan’s round Thursday did he rush a shot or appear to be unnerved. When his second shot on the par-4 11th went for a swim, he got up and down from the drop zone to save bogey. He would proceed to birdie the par-5 13th and play Amen Corner even par.

Two of the most impressive shots of the day came from behind the green on the sixth and 17th holes. When Guan got out his 60-degree sand wedge on the par-3 sixth and, from a downhill lie, nearly holed his second shot, Crenshaw put his arms out and looked at the crowd as if to say, “Are you kidding me?”

“He played about four of the most beautiful, delicate pitches you've ever seen,” Crenshaw said.

Guan’s parents spoke through an interpreter after the round, and when asked who got credit for his son’s short game, Guan’s father said their son is self-taught.

Guan said he had time in China only on the weekends to work on his short game. He spends about three months a year in California, however, for training.

Guan arrived in Augusta three weeks ago, and it wasn’t unusual for him to arrive at the course at 10 a.m. and leave at about 7 p.m. Outside of his studies, which account for roughly an hour per day, he lives and breathes the game.

“I want to win a major,” said Guan, when asked about his long-term goals, “and hopefully I can win the four majors in one year.”

Laughter followed that statement, but he’s not likely joking.

When Guan finished his news conference Thursday evening, he remained in the media center, fielding more questions with a cellphone held up to one ear and a TV microphone beneath his chin.

One gets the feeling that Guan’s fame is about to explode.

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