Golf

14-year-old outduels veteran Crenshaw in Masters debut

pobley@ thestate.comApril 11, 2013 

— DO YOU KNOW what you were doing in 1998?

Of course you do. It was only 14 years ago, for crying out loud.

While you and I were ignoring the fact Mark McGwire was swatting No. 62 with back acne and wiping away a tear as Cal Ripken finally took a seat, Hanwen Guan and his wife were welcoming a baby boy into the world.

That little boy, now 14 years, 5 months old, teed it up with Ben Crenshaw on Thursday afternoon at the Masters … and shot a 73.

Seventy-three.

Dadgum.

Guan Tianlang, winner of the Asian-Pacific amateur championship, became the youngest competitor to partake in the Tradition Like No Other. In a stroke of genius, he was paired with Ben Crenshaw, who extended the longest active streak of Masters starts to 42.

Crenshaw was roaming the azalea-laden grounds when Tianlang’s parents were toddlers.

They were greeted heartily by tournament patrons as they approached the first tee. Crenshaw cracked wise about age going before beauty to explain why he went first.

“There he is, there he is, there he is,” exclaimed a 30-something man as he clapped and pointed enthusiastically at Tianlang. “This is history.”

Crenshaw yanked his drive into the pine needles to the left of the fairway. After Matteo Manassero, the other member of the group, smacked a pretty drive down the left side of the fairway, Tianlang stepped up.

“Is that little boy up there yet?” asked an elderly fan several rows deep behind the tee box.

Tianlang’s hand trembled slightly as he plunged his tee in the soft turf.

“He’s nervous,” said a middle-aged woman.

“Oh, yeah, he’s nervous,” said the 30-something man.

Tianlang took two self-conscious practice swings, then squared up the ball.

“I was just a little bit nervous,” he would later say.

What followed was that sweet sound that comes when a driver’s metal greets a dimpled ball with dead solid perfection. His drive sliced through the humid air and bounded purposefully down the middle of the fairway.

“Had the wind behind him,” cackled an elderly gentleman reclined in his folding chair.

When Crenshaw first made his bones in this sport, the names Gary Player, Lee Trevino and Jack Nicklaus were the stuff of legend. They were as well-known as any sports icons, but their’s was the domain of the white man, as it had been for the centuries since the game’s inception.

Two decades later, along came Tiger Woods and golf went from boutique endeavor to the Nike-saturated mainstream. Despite this, golf remained a Western world phenomenon.

Then on Oct. 25, 1998, Hanwen Guan and his wife had a little baby boy, the only child they would have under China’s population control laws. By age 4, he had a club in his hand.

Ten years later, there was Tianlang, sharing the spotlight with those who came before him, ushering in golf’s third age.

It is a pleasing irony that stubborn Augusta National is the place where golf truly went global. What better spot for this to happen than on the grounds of a club that didn’t admit its first African-American member until the 1990s and its first female members until last year?

“Our mission here is very simple,” said Augusta National chairman Billy Payne. “To get kids interested, to get them excited and get them motivated to play this great game. … Guan’s qualification and participation in the Masters is an excellent example of why we and the (Royal & Ancient) began the Asia-Pacific amateur championship four years ago — to create heroes in that region who would inspire others to take up the game.

“No doubt, millions of kids across Asia will be following him this week.”

So, too, will the sport’s legends.

“I will be a little bit like what (Bobby) Jones was to me,” Nicklaus said. “I’ll give him whatever he wants and however I can help him, I’m happy to do that.”

As will the sport’s current brightest lights.

“It’s just going to be such a great experience for him,” said Rory McIlroy, who was five years older than Tianlang when he made his Masters debut and is 10 years older than him now. “You’re playing in the Masters at 14. I mean, he could potentially play, I don’t know, 60 Masters. Yeah, it’s incredible.”

Tianlang bogeyed that first hole. He battled wayward fairway shots with aggressive chipping and putting that earned applause from Crenshaw on two occasions.

He finished the day better than he began it, drilling a birdie putt from the fringe on No. 18, earning thunderous applause from the gallery.

So, to recap: a Chinese eighth-grader — who goes to school until 5 p.m. every day and practices on the weekends — made his Masters debut and finished one stroke ahead of the defending champion, Bubba Watson.

“I think I am pretty focused on golf, and I think I’ve done pretty good so far,” Tianlang said. “I just want to play some good golf tomorrow and just enjoy it.”

Tianlang admitted winning this year likely is not possible, but he was not shy in offering this grandiose desire:

“I want to win a major,” he said. “Hopefully, I can win the four majors in one year.”

It’s hard to predict where golf goes from here. Perhaps somewhere in the world a child was born today. Born in the unlikeliest of places, under the unlikeliest circumstances, who will one day, once again, redefine the game.

And maybe that child will be looking up to Tianlang Guan.

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