Imagination, confidence keep Guan going
AUGUSTA, Ga. Tianlang Guan dropped a 60-foot putt for par on the 18th hole, threw both hands into the air and doffed his white Augusta cap. Playing partner Thorbjorn Olesen gave him a fist bump. The crowd rose to its feet. The kid knows how to put on a show.
Guan’s third round at the 77th Masters wasn’t quite as newsworthy as his first two – a 5-over 77 with no slow-play warnings – but he was a popular attraction on a gorgeous day in Augusta. Many patrons wandered over to watch Guan hit at least one shot. After all, the 14-year-old is walking history.
“Unbelievable,” said Olesen when asked for his impressions of Guan. “I mean, every shot he hit was almost at the pin and in the right spots.”
Guan’s 9-over score isn’t indicative of how well he has hit the ball. Because he’s hitting hybrid on so many approach shots – and greens are firming up – he spent a great deal of time over the greens. He again made several spectacular par saves, but couldn’t convert them all. For the second consecutive day, he failed to post a birdie.
There were two rules officials hanging out on the 11th hole, noting that Guan’s group was one minute out of position. Nothing to get too excited about, the official noted. And anyway, any delay in the group at the point was caused by Olesen, who had to pitch out twice onto the fairway after leaking two drives into the pine trees. It also helped that they played twosomes Saturday and the weather was docile.
“I think he played pretty quick actually,” Olesen said. “He's 14, and there's a big crowd following him, so it's pretty difficult for him. I think he's handled it really, really good.”
In breaking down Guan’s stats of the week, it’s not surprising that he’s last in driving distance, averaging 258 yards. He’s still just a boy, with a rail-thin frame.
“Did you hear his mom is following him around with juice boxes?” a twentysomething patron asked his buddy on the 12th hole.
Three holes later, his mom did hand over a Dasani bottle filled with milk, a banana and one of those delectable $3 barbecue sandwiches from the Masters concession stand. It’s doubtful, however, that the latter was consumed by Guan down the stretch.
He’s also last in greens in regulation, averaging seven per round. He’s 16th in fairways, hitting 31 of 42, and seventh in putting, with 82. He didn’t record one official three-putt, though he did three-putt from the fringe.
So what we have here is an incredibly imaginative, fearless boy who carries himself with the air of a man twice his age. His body language, his posture, his clothes all emulate a well-trained professional. His swing is too flat, and he’ll have to get rid of that belly putter, but there’s vast potential for the boy nicknamed Langly.
Which leads us to the obvious question: What’s next for Guan?
He was supposed to meet with Woods’ instructor, Sean Foley, this weekend, but Guan wound up making the cut. They’ll likely gather sometime after the Masters, as a bit of a meet-and-greet of sorts. Guan said he’ll probably try to qualify for the U.S. Open this summer. No word on whether he might add the U.S. Junior.
Teenagers making cuts at majors is nothing new for golf. Aree Song and Michelle Wie contended at women's majors when they were Guan’s age. Song, 26 is retired from golf, finishing her degree at the University of Florida. Wie, of course, is a two-time winner on the LPGA, but far from the world-class champion whom so many expected.
Guan’s road is a bit more uncharted, as he’s the youngest to achieve such success on the men’s side.
Andy Zhang competed in last year’s U.S. Open at 14 but failed to make the cut. The men’s game is unquestionably deeper, and there are more roads available to reach the top. But Guan will carry the weight of a vast country with him if his game continues to progress. Golf has yet to become a major sport in China, but should that moment occur, its scale would be unprecedentedly huge.
What’s most amazing about those who have had the chance to watch Guan up close, and speak with him after rounds, is that none find that this really seems to faze him. He’s not giddy or scared or overwhelmed.
“I think I played pretty good rounds these three days. It’s really great,” he said, when asked if he could put his experience at Augusta into words.
It’s as if he were born to do this.