The Masters: Guan Tianlang keeps nerve to silence doubters
Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo, Tom Watson, Ben Crenshaw. Golf's royalty has been lining up at Augusta to praise and pass on their wisdom to Tianlang Guan, the 14-year-old history-making prince of the fairways from Guangzhou, China.
The youngest ever competitor in the 77 years of the Masters, Guan is only one month older than the youngest in any major championship – that honour still belongs to Young Tom Morris at the 1860 Open in Prestwick. Guan teed off his first round in the company of Crenshaw (the 1984 and 1995 champion) and Italy's Matteo Manassero, still only 19, whose record Guan broke.
Many wondered if the kid would break 80. Some suggested maybe he should be concentrating more on his homework rather than his yardages. But Guan earned his spot here on merit, winning the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship last November. And he proved his doubters wrong showing guts, talent and nerve under one of sport's most dazzling spotlights.
As that old saying goes: if you are good enough, you are old enough. A nervous bogey at the opening hole was as predictable as it was understandable. No matter. The par-five second gave him time to gather his wits and catch his breath with a par. The short par-four third offered him a chance to bag his first birdie. Chance duly taken – and three steady pars followed. The kid was rolling along nicely chatting to Crenshaw and soaking up the atmosphere receiving applause onto every tee and green. On this hallowed turf of Bobby Jones, they love their amateurs here perhaps more than at any other golf club. Guan headed for the back nine and the ultimate test of Amen Corner at two over par after bogeys at the seventh and ninth.
Uncle Ben marched his kids up the hill to the 10th tee. The old timer was sporting old school gangster spats, sensible grey Sunday best pinstriped trousers and a shirt with a touch of pink on the collar. A choice of colour that merely accentuated his tanned face that looks like a favourite battered old leather briefcase that had been left out in the sun for too many years. Guan went for the pizzazz of youth: baby blue trousers, trainers and a fluorescent lime green flash on the shaft of his driver. Manaserro's red and white checked trousers were possibly fashioned from a picnic blanket – gingham, rather than gangnam style.
Guan only bats his drives about 250 yards but the slope of the 10th fairway is so severe he got a helping kick down the hill. "Naaaaace shart," purred a patron in a beautiful Southern drawl. "That kid doesn't look like he's even broken sweat," said another. Guan duly birdied one of the toughest holes on the course. No sweat. He birdied the 13th and 18th too completing the back nine in one under par and signed for a one over par 73. beating defending champion Bubba Watson plus fellow Ryder Cuppers Ian Poulter, Paul Lawrie, Padraig Harrington, Hunter Mahan and Keegan Bradley. "I want to win a major one day," Guan said. "Hopefully I can win all four in one year." What a kid. He said it was the most amazing experience of his young life. "The people were cheering for me. It was a dream come true."
Guan speaks perfect English and has presented himself as charming, confident without being cocky, and comfortable being the centre of attention fielding questions from the grown-ups. Guan is not like your average 14-year-old for whom communication rarely raises itself above shrugs and grunts. His ambition this week? "Just to enjoy it." He now has a chance to make the weekend cut and claim 'Best Amateur' honours. He won't win of course – probably just as well, they'd have trouble finding a Green Jacket to fit him.