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Augusta welcomes its youngest to the first tee

Amateur Guan Tianlang, of China, shakes hands with Tom Watson, right, on the driving range during a practice round for the Masters golf tournament. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
Expert
9th April, 2013
28

Guan Tianlang will be 14 years, 5 months and 17 days when he tees off at Augusta this week – the youngest player ever to play at the US Masters.

Or is it Tianglang, or Tian-lang? All three have been mentioned in dispatches, but we will go with Tianlang as the most widely used.

Hard to get your head around isn’t it?

A pencil-thin, 54kg-dripping-wet teenager who drives a maximum 250 yards off the tee has genuinely qualified for the prestige major.

He looks more like a golf stick than a boy.

Just as hard as to recall China barred golf until 1984 as ‘bourgeois frippery’, and golf courses a waste of space that should be farmland to feed the teeming millions.

Like so many ways of our life, dramatic changes have been made.

In just 29 years since golf was accepted, China’s closing in on 1,000 top class courses, and expect 20 million to be regular golfers by 2020.

Awesome stats but in a population of 1.3 billion, understandable.

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Andy Zhang was the first breakthrough when he became a last-minute replacement at last year’s US Open at 14, just slightly older than Tianlang.

He missed the cut.

Guan, pronounced Juan, was born at sunrise, and means ‘beautiful sunny day’.

That’s what it will be for the teenager when he tees off with Sir Nick Faldo in the annual par three tournament.

He has already played seven practice rounds at Augusta with the likes of Tiger Woods, Ben Crenshaw, Dustin Johnson, Tom Watson, and Sir Nick. And he had them all blinking in amazement.

Guan wasn’t even born when Woods won his first Masters in 1997.

He picked up his first golf club at four, watched his first Masters in television when he was five, and emulated Jim Furyk’s awkward golf swing at six.

Is it too soon?

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I’ve always believed if you’re good enough, you are old enough.

The jury is obviously out in Guan Tianlang, but give him the chance to strut his stuff.

An early start hasn’t damaged Michelle Wie, who was 14 years 2 months and 29 days when she teed up in the 2004 Sony Open in Hawaii on the men’s tour.

She has since won two pro tournaments – the 2009 Lorena Ochoa Invitational, and the 2010 Canadian Open – on the women’s tour, with her best major finish a second in the 2005 LPGA as an amateur.

Martina Hingis won her first Slam title at Wimbledon in 1996 at 15 years and 9 months in the doubles with Helena Sukova, and won her first singles Slam at Roland Garros at 16 years and 3 months in 1997.

All up Hingis won five singles Slams, nine Slam doubles, and 37 tournaments on the WTA tour.

Michael Chang was only 17 years, 3 months and 20 days hen he won the French Open in 1989 and reached two other Slam finals at the Australian and US in 1996.

Chang went onto win 34 tournaments on the men’s tour.

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For the record, Lleyton Hewitt is the youngest Australian Slam singles champion at 20 years, 6 months, and 16 days when he won the 2001 US Open – the 14th youngest Slam winner in history.

So there’s plenty for Guan Tianlang to draw on.

Veteran American Steve Stricker summed him up best.

“I can’t believe he’s the same age as my daughter Bobbi,” he said.

“I just can’t imagine being that young and competing at this level. I’ll be interested to see how he does, how he handles it, and how he plays.

“It’s remarkable he’s even playing”.

That it is, but for at least two days Guan Tianlang will be the headline no matter how Woods plays. Even more so if Guan goes the distance.