AUGUSTA, Ga. — Bobby Jones played in his first major championship when he was 14, advancing to the third round of the 1916 US Amateur, which at the time was considered one of golf’s crown jewels.
Jones never became a professional, but still won 13 major championships. After retiring in his prime, he built a course and created a tournament that quickly took its place among the game’s elite, where it has remained.
It’s here, at Augusta National Golf Club and this year’s Masters, that another 14-year-old will make his major championship debut nearly 100 years later, turning heads and setting records in the process. Not only will Tianlang Guan become the youngest player in Masters history — by more than two years — but he’ll be the second-youngest contestant ever to compete in any of the four current major championships. Young Tom Morris was one month younger than Guan when he tied for ninth at the ’65 British Open — that’s 1865.
An eighth-grader from China, Guan qualified for the Masters last November by winning the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship, a tournament that Augusta National helped establish four years ago in an attempt to grow the game. Getting a 14-year-old Masters participant, from a country that is slowly discovering the sport with plenty of room for growth, just happens to be an unexpectedly newsworthy byproduct.
“I’m not going to push myself too hard, and I’m going to enjoy the game,” Guan said Monday, the first official practice day for the 77th Masters, which starts Thursday. “Hopefully I can play well.”
He’s certainly putting in the time required to get familiar with the course. Guan has been here three weeks, squeezing in six or seven practice rounds around homework and English lessons (a translator during his interview spoke to him in Mandarin, but he answered every question impressively in English).
On the course, he book-ended his interview obligation by playing with a pair of former Masters champions: Ben Crenshaw in the morning, Tiger Woods in the afternoon. Tuesday brings a scheduled practice round with Tom Watson, and Guan is playing the Par-3 Contest Wednesday with Nick Faldo.
Age, meet experience.
Accomplishing so much so soon, and surrounding himself with major champions in practice rounds, does Guan ever feel older than 14?
“No, I don’t feel it,” he said, laughing. “But I want to say, because I have the confidence and I know I can play well. I’m going to play like myself, so I’m not going to try to do too much.”
Being the youngest is nothing new for Guan. Nobody was younger at the Asia-Pacific Amateur in Thailand, where the unheralded teen led wire-to-wire, draining a 5-foot putt on the 72d hole to win by one stroke. He’s also the youngest to ever play in a European Tour event (last year’s Volvo China Open, when he was 13), and the youngest winner on both the China Amateur Futures Tour (11) and China Amateur Tour (12).
Matteo Manassero had been the youngest Masters participant, playing three years ago when he was 16. He tied for 36th and was low amateur.
Golf might be trending younger, but playing in the Masters at 14 has left some established professionals searching for the right words to describe the feat.
“I did it at 19, and I can remember teeing it up with Tiger Woods, and being glad I got the ball to balance on the [first] tee,” said Matt Kuchar, who tied for 21st in his amateur debut at Augusta in 1998. “At 19, I could have been too young to know what I was really in for. At 14 . . . that’s amazing.”
Despite the accomplishment, Guan shows his age, which is a refreshingly fine sight to see. He was decked out in highlighter-yellow slacks and cracked a smile when the occasional (if always obnoxious) “You’re the man” declaration came his way. Barely weighing 130 pounds, he certainly doesn’t have tour length; Woods and Dustin Johnson landed their 18th-hole drives past where Guan’s ball finished.
So he makes up for it in other ways, with a deft short game (always a good thing to have here) and consistently solid ball-striking. Case in point: Even though he was left with a hybrid for his second shot to the 18th, Guan hit the approach inside 3 feet, closer than Johnson or Woods, who won his first Masters 18 months before Guan was even born.
Bobby Jones’s tournament has always embraced the amateur since the first Masters in 1934, but at 7,435 yards, the present-day course may prove to be too long for the only teenager in the field.
“He’s a 14-year-old kid and he’s coming to play a really, really big-boy course,” said Faldo, who has been a mentor of sorts for Guan, working with him in China. “On paper, you’ll see he’s going to struggle. You need to hit it 300-plus to make life easier.”
Easier? Guan hasn’t even started high school yet, was planning to stay in the Augusta National clubhouse Crow’s Nest Monday night, and he’s about to play in the Masters. How can life this week get any better?
“I’m really excited when I come out on the course and there’s many people here,” Guan said. “I’m really looking forward to the tournament.”
. . .
In keeping with the youthful theme, a few hours after Guan met with the media, a joint announcement was made by the Masters, US Golf Association, and PGA of America about the formation of the Drive, Chip & Putt Championship, a skills competition for junior golfers ages 7 to 15. National finalists from each age group — 7-9, 10-11, 12-13, and 14-15, for boys and girls — will compete at Augusta National on April 6, 2014, which is the Sunday before the Masters. Driving and chipping will take place at the club’s tournament practice facility, with the putting portion being held on the 18th green. Anyone interested in competing must register at drivechipandputt.com, with 5 p.m. April 30 the deadline. Local qualifying and regional qualifying will be held later this year.