- The Masters
Following a 14-year-old Masters superstarApril 8, 2013
Somewhere near Kunming, China, a thick, greyish haze, the color of cream of mushroom soup, sits stubbornly over a hilly countryside dotted with construction cranes. Our shuttle van, a silver Mercedes number that could seat the entire "Duck Dynasty", is doing 85, easy, on the eight-lane freeway.
The driver glances back at me in the rearview mirror and makes a decision. She taps a CD into the front console slot, turns up the volume dial and in moments the van's speakers are cranking out some sort of terrifying Kenny G knockoff Christmas collection, beginning with "Frosty The Snowman."
I stare out the window. It's early March. There's another hour to go before I meet a 14-year-old golfer more famous outside his country than in it. His name is Tianlang Guan (pronounced "Tin-Long"). His friends and family call him "Langlang" (pronounced "Long-long"). And there's also an English version: "Langly."
But forget the name thing for a moment. All that really matters is this: he's 14 and the youngest player in the history of The Masters, and the second-youngest player ever to compete in a major. Or as his golf hero, Tiger Woods, put it a few weeks ago: "It's frightening to think that he was born after I won my first Masters. I mean, that's just frightening."
It isn't every day that a Chinese teenager, whose Communist government is lukewarm about bourgeois golf, qualifies for The Masters. But that's what happened last November at the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship in Chonburi, Thailand. Tianlang, the youngest player in the 120-man field, was five exits past longshot status. Ranked 490th in the world amateur rankings at the time, he was a tournament afterthought.
He led after the first round. Yawn. And the second round. Interesting. And the third round. Hmmm. Of course, he'd fold like a table napkin in the final round and that would be that. Except he didn't fold. The older, more acclaimed amateurs of South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, Japan, etc., tried to make their Sunday runs at him, but Tianlang clung to the lead.
On the final hole of regulation, he needed to sink a 5-footer for par to win the tournament and the automatic Masters invitation that came with the victory. There are PGA Tour pros whose legs would turn into mashed potatoes standing over that putt. Tianlang knocked it into the beefy part of the cup.
Replays show his father, Hanwen Guan, ducking under the gallery rope, sprinting down a hill bordering the 18th green and then hugging his son. Replays also show Tianlang's expression, which borders somewhere between comatose and a guy reading federal tax code.
Anyway, he was in The Masters, the news of which caused jaws to drop around the golf world. Not only had he secured one of those precious invites to Augusta National, but he had nearly unseated Young Tom Morris from the record books. Young Tom was 14 years, four months when he played in the 1865 Open Championship. Tianlang will be 14 years, five months when he steps to the first tee on Thursday.
To put this in better perspective, Nick Faldo was 21 when he first played there, Phil Mickelson was 20 and both Jack Nicklaus and Woods were 19. Nicklaus has golf gloves older than Tianlang.
Assorted news outlets reported afterward that Tianlang tweeted: "I want to win the US Masters at Augusta." But according to his press liaison for The Masters, it came from a fake Twitter account.
This makes sense, especially after I meet Tianlang and his father as they play the Nicklaus Mountain course at the Spring City Resort near Kunming. There is a shy hello near the green, a hurried handshake and a few moments of small talk; Tianlang speaks English fairly well, his dad hardly at all. And then I notice Tianlang growing impatient. He wants to get back to work.
The two courses at Spring City (the Nicklaus track and a Robert Trent Jones II layout) are known for having the fastest greens in China. Since Augusta National is known for having the fastest greens this side of a marble floor, Tianlang has a need for speed. So he and his dad will spend the next three days here. The superintendent of the courses has done his part, rolling the greens to raise the Stimpmeter reading from 11.5 to 13.4.
When the pollution drifts away, this is a stunningly beautiful place. Cliffs nearly encircle the Yangzonghai Lake and the temperature is San Diego-ish: cool in the morning and night, warm during the day. Yeah, OK, I could do without the massive aluminum plant on the other side of the lake, but you can't have everything.
Security guards wearing white helmets salute when you enter the resort. And near the clubhouse there is a virtual army of caddies - all women and all wearing green uniforms. They ride on the back of the golf carts. I take a peek at Tianlang's worn orange, blue and white golf bag, which looks like a hand-me-down from the University of Illinois team. He has four different makes of clubs and there's no mistaking the belly putter sticking its neck out from the bag.
Tianlang is almost 5-foot-9 and weighs 143lbs, which is about 10lbs heavier than when he won the Asia-Pacific Amateur. He hits his driver about 250 yards or so, which would rank him 63rd on the tour. ... the LPGA Tour. He makes Mike Weir look like Bubba Watson.
But reality check: He's 14 years old. And by the way, when you put a wedge or a putter in his hand, he either sticks it close to the pin or sinks it.
After his round (followed by a long session on the putting green), we meet for dinner in the resort dining room. I hand Tianlang a 2012 Masters Annual that I brought from home (Augusta National sends one each year to writers covering the tournament). He thumbs slowly through the pages, as if he's memorizing each photo, story, stat and yardage.
The dinner group includes Tianlang, his father, a media relations consultant from Hong Kong, our ESPN crew of five and a "fixer" (part interpreter, part problem-solver). There is probably someone else at the table, but I can't remember after the drink toasts. I've never done shots of jet fuel, but if I did, I think it would taste like Chinese vodka. Mr Guan keeps standing up and offering toasts. Our interpreter says it would be impolite and a loss of face for Mr Guan if we don't take part.
So three or four shots later, I'm cracking wise, yukking it up to the Guans. That's when the interpreter leans over and says discreetly, "Mr Guan does not understand your particular sense of humour."
Smoking is allowed in the restaurant. So, apparently, is pulling your golf shirt up to your neck and scratching your belly. Not me - the guy at the table behind us - the same table where a bucket of ice and a huge bottle of Johnnie Walker sit as centerpieces.
I like China.
Friday, March 8
Tianlang is the only child of Hanwen and Hongyu Guan. There are a lot of only children in China because of the country's birth control policy. "When he was born," says Hanwen through the interpreter, "it was about 6 or 7 o'clock. The sunrise was so nice. The sun was just climbing up. The sky was so beautiful." So he was named, Tianlang, which means, "beautiful, sunny day."
He hit his first driving range ball when he was four. He watched his first Masters when he was five. He began winning junior tournaments throughout China and later, in the United States. "At first, I just play for fun, so after maybe a couple of years I feel I can do well in it and I just really practice working hard," Tianlang said.
Yes, the kid is a worker bee. He doesn't screw around on the driving range at Spring City or during rounds on the Lake or Mountain courses. He is 14 going on 44. "When he first told me about his dream in golf, I just thought that he was only a kid speaking about his dream casually," says Hanwen. "It was like saying, `I have a big ambition.' Like saying, `I want to go to [outer] space,' or, `I want to be a Superman.' That sort of thing."
Hanwen is part father, part caddie, part swing coach, part friend. He gave up his medical practice to devote his time to his son's golf dream. He dotes lovingly on Tianlang, even to the point of spreading sunscreen on his son's face and ears. "It is a close relationship between father and son in a traditional Chinese family," says Hanwen. "A relationship between friends and sometimes, he is my boss. For quite a lot of time, I would listen to him."
It isn't uncommon in China for small children to be sent to nurseries for days at a time so their parents can work full-time. Tianlang was three years old when he spent five days a week at the nursery, returning home only on the weekends. "You will find that he is kind of independent, he is cool," says Hanwen. "Maybe because he was sent to nursery and had to face so many circumstances on his own. Maybe he plays golf so well also because of the same reason."
Tianlang doesn't do many chores around the house. He doesn't get an allowance. School work and golf are his jobs. When he was 13, Tianlang competed in the Volvo China Open, becoming the youngest player in European Tour history. He has played in the Australian Open, the Australian Masters and tried (and failed) to qualify for the Open Championship. He's sort of used to this history thing.
But Chinese golf isn't. As our crew follows Tianlang during a Friday morning round, I chat up Elvin Chua, a marketing executive whose company oversees the Spring City resort. Golf, said Chua, is considered by the government and most of its 1.3 billion citizens as a rich person's sport, a "Western" game. Table tennis, soccer, badminton, swimming, basketball - those are the sports of choice in China. Golf, which was banned in China until 1984, is a boutique sport.
That's why Tianlang is so important. The more exposure he gains and the more success he has, the better the chances are that the government reclassifies golf as a game of the people. The Masters is a nice start. Five different networks will carry TV coverage in China. In the past, perhaps three sportswriters for China-based publications would cover The Masters. This year, it could be as many as a dozen.
Consider it The Tianlang Effect.
Saturday, March 9
The more I watch Tianlang, the more I realise he isn't coming to Augusta National to miss the cut, stash a bathrobe from his stay in the Crow's Nest and chow down on pimento cheese sandwiches. Everything he does during his practice rounds has The Masters in mind. He shapes shots. He wants to putt on the fastest parts of the greens. He looks for sidehill, uphill and downhill lies off the shortest cuts possible - just like the ones you'll find at Augusta.
Hanwen, who once played to a single-digit handicap, wants to call it a day on the 10th hole of their afternoon practice round. Tianlang asks for two more holes of work. Guess who gets his way? They play two more holes.
Afterward, an interview for a TV piece. Tianlang insists on doing his interview in English.
Things you should know about Tianlang:
- Favorite golfer: Tiger. ("He has a strong mind and really focus on his game too. And a strong heart.")
- Favorite basketball player: Kobe Bryant.
- Dream practice round foursome at The Masters: Tiger, Nicklaus, Tom Watson (the kid has some old school in him). Alternate: Bubba.
- Nicklaus wrote Tianlang a letter of congratulations after the Asia-Pacific Amateur win.
- He can sort of do the Gangnam Style dance.
- He has been watching videos of past Masters as prep work.
- Less than a handful of students at his school (enrollment: about 3,100) play golf.
Ask him if he's scared about playing in the Masters, and he half-shrugs. "Probably a little bit right now, but I think I will do it well," he says.
Dinner is another big affair. A huge Lazy Susan groans with food. Jet fuel is poured. More toasts are made. English and physical education are Tianlang's two favorite school subjects, but tonight after his meal he hunkers down with a video tablet for his nightly math lesson. Later, I see him alone at a table reading the Masters Annual.
Sunday, March 10
Guangzhou, we bug out for the two-hour flight to the Guans' hometown of Guangzhou. In case you didn't know, Guangzhou is Pittsburgh on HGH. Three rivers (the East, West and North) merge to form the Pearl River here. This is the third-largest city in China, which is saying something. Thirteen million people live here, more than the entire population of Pennsylvania or Illinois.
Across the street from the Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport (which makes LaGuardia look like a place to land crop dusters), we meet Asia and European touring golf pro Wenchong Liang. If China had a Mt. Rushmore of golfers, Liang would be on it. He's played in The Masters, Open Championship and PGA Championship (a T-8 in 2010). He is also Tianlang's golf mentor.
Liang didn't sugarcoat it when talking about Tianlang's victory at the Asia-Pacific Amateur. "Everyone, including the young, amateur, professional, Asia, or even worldwide golf players, were shocked by the news, just like me," he says through an interpreter.
It was Liang who convinced Tianlang's parents that it was OK if their son did more physical training. It was Liang who advised the Guans that they leave early for Augusta to acclimate Tianlang to the States and to the course. And it was Liang who gave Tianlang the advice that matters when playing Augusta National.
"Distance is not short and the green is complicated," Liang said. That about sums it up. Plus, the patrons are 25 thick in spots and, oh, yeah, it's a major and he's only 14 years old. "We must persist to make the impossible possible and looking forward to seeing that happen," he said.
For the record, Liang was 29 when he played in the 2008 Masters. He missed the cut. "Whenever I recall the Masters, I still feel the same," he says. Then he taps his heart.
Translation: It beat harder and faster than ever that Thursday in 2008.
Monday, March 11
A pair of guardian lion statues bracket the entrance to Zhixin High School, where Tianlang is an eighth grader. His attendance has been spotty because of tournament play and because of his preparation for The Masters (this is his first day back in more than a month) - and it's about to get a lot worse.
The city public school is one of Guangzhou's best. At 7:05am the gates open, and by 7:15, students with wicker baskets are raking up the leaves in the courtyard that separates the junior high building from the high school building. Student greeters wearing red sashes stand at the front gate to welcome their classmates.
Tianlang hurries up the steps to his classroom only minutes before school begins. He's wearing dark slacks and a white shirt that soon will include a Young Pioneer red scarf wrapped around the neck. Young Pioneers are sort of like little league Communists. It's a big deal here.
Not long after classes convene, the buildings empty for the morning assembly in an athletic field ringed by apartment high-rises. The flag is raised. Songs are sung. Announcements are made, including one that acknowledges Tianlang. Then it's back to math class, where v=1463/t, y=1000/x and s=1.61.x10(4)/n. Four fans hang from the ceiling and spit out air on a cool, slightly muggy morning. A teacher wearing Burberry boots emerges from a nearby workroom and gives me the stink eye as I stand in the hallway.
Meanwhile, as students take turns solving problems on the blackboard, a kid sitting across from Tianlang on the back row does what all eighth graders do in math class: he falls asleep. Someone wads up a piece of notebook paper and tosses it at the kid's head. He wakes up, groggy, disoriented. And then he plops back down.
Tianlang is summoned to the blackboard. He gets most of the equation right, but then struggles at the end. His classmates help him figure out the answer and then applaud as he returns to his seat. There is an exercise session, then more classes and then Tianlang is done for the day. He plays basketball and a few hours later is at the Jinye Golf Club, a plush city driving range with a country club feel.
Inside the facility there are oversized photos of Mickelson, Ian Poulter, Michelle Wie, Lee Westwood and, of course, Woods. VIP rooms feature privacy walls, a bathroom, shower, big screen TV, couches, magazine rack, tea maker, a huge supply of golf balls and two separate grass mats. There are 108 stalls in all. Tianlang is there to test different club shafts. One of the club specialists is brewing a pot of afternoon tea when Tianlang and his dad enter the shop at 4:50.
The practice session lasts two hours. Tianlang has been doing this for months, years. Two friends - 12-year-old "Jimmy" Wang and 11-year old "Q-Q" Liang - join Tianlang on the range. Tianlang is their role model. Jimmy is even wearing an old pair of lime-green golf pants that Tianlang gave him.
As they hit balls, other golfers, mostly the 21-handicap variety, stop to watch the kids' near-perfect swings. I watch one player shake his head, mutter something and then return to his mat, where he executes his 11-piece takeaway. About 20 yards away, on the office door of the teaching pros, is a huge poster of Woods as a toddler. He's swinging a cut-down club. In the top left corner of the poster, is Chinese writing. Translated, it reads: "When Tiger was almost three years old and he doesn't have any training yet, he already can swing like a pro."
For Tianlang, it's the driving range during the week, the golf course on the weekends (his dad is a member at a nearby club) and anonymity just about all seven days. Tianlang is famous - it's just that the rest of China doesn't know it yet. "He's not a star," said Smile Xu, managing director of a Hong Kong-based marketing firm handling Tianlang's media requests leading up to The Masters. "Even at school, students don't treat him different."
But he is different. After his practice session, he spends a few minutes in the driving range lounge area playing several holes of a Woods video game that features Augusta National. I push a button on the control console to move directly to the 10th hole.
"Here we go," I say.
"This is No. 10?" he says.
"Yep, this is it."
Tianlang looks at me, too polite to correct my mistake. Then it hits me: I've pressed the wrong button. It isn't the par-4 10th. Tianlang, it turns out, apparently has already memorised all the holes. Maybe it was those Masters DVDs, or the Masters telecasts, or even the Masters Annual, but he knows them like a multiplication table.
Wednesday, March 13
Shenzhen, Sir Nick is late. That would be Nick Faldo, winner of three Masters and three Open Championships. He's at Mission Hills on business and to give Tianlang's game a look-see and provide some Augusta National inside knowledge. It isn't exactly a private lesson. There are a dozen TV cameramen and photographers, a handful of reporters and assorted PR personnel, equipment technicians and hotel guests from the massive golf resort.
At 8:48am, Faldo arrives and begins to dispense Masters advice, all of it worthwhile. The nuggets: "Hit and enjoy. Putt from every position on the greens. Take an Augusta National yardage book and step off the numbers yourself. Never underestimate how big the breaks are on those greens. Know exactly how long your irons carry. Practice downhill putts. Know where to miss it. Practice one-yard chips. Don't waste your time working on 50-yard bunker shots; there aren't any at Augusta. Pray the winds don't swirl."
Faldo works with Tianlang on his knockdown shots. He makes him hit a high fade, a high draw, a low fade, a low draw. He tells the teenager he needs to hit down on his wedges to create more backspin. He says Tianlang will need 10 mph more of swing speed by The Masters.
There's a chipping lesson. Tianlang aces it. Then Hanwen pulls out a couple of Faldo's instructional books for autograph signing. "To Tianlang, Good Golfing," writes Faldo, who promises to give him his old Augusta National yardage books to study. The two are scheduled to play the Par-3 Tournament together.
Tianlang and his dad hustle back to Guangzhou to finish packing for the 26-hour trip to Augusta. They're leaving tonight. Meanwhile, we make our way to Sand River Golf Club in Shenzhen, which is another multi-deck, luxury driving range facility. Canadian Dan Webb, a former minor league hockey player-turned-professional golf instructor, has a history of working with Tianlang. They first met when Tianlang was six. By then, Tianlang could imitate the swings of Jim Furyk (yikes), Ernie Els, Woods and for reasons unknown, Chris DiMarco.
"And then he'd do his own swing," said Webb. "Five swings." Webb caddied for Tianlang at the Volvo China Open. He said he was amazed by the then-13-year-old's composure. He doesn't expect that to change at the Masters. "I would think a 14-year old would freak out," said Webb. "But I don't think he will. ... It's really tough to penetrate his personality. I'm sure it's busy inside there. But by his demeanor, it's just so calm - so genuinely calm to the bone."
We drive back to Guangzhou and wait at the airport terminal. About 90 minutes before their flight leaves, the Guans make their way to the ticketing desk. Tianlang pushes a luggage cart filled with suitcases and his golf bag. Nobody recognizes him.
Monday, March 18
Ausgusta, the rental car slowly makes it way down the most famous street in golf. Hanwen and Tianlang have seen Magnolia Lane on TV, but this is different. This is real. "Beautiful," gushes Hanwen, from behind the wheel.
Club pro Tony Sessa and several other club officials greet father and son. Tianlang is here for his first practice round at Augusta National. Sessa gives him a quick tour. He shows them the room in the clubhouse where each past champion has donated a club to the collection. "So if and when you win The Masters one day, you'll have to give us one of the clubs you used to win it," says Sessa.
Tianlang nods seriously, as if he's already thinking about which club he'd hand over. There are questions asked by a Masters innocent.
Tianlang: "What is the speed of the greens?"
Sessa: "We don't have a number. We call the green speed, 'tournament speed.' But there is no number."
Sessa walks them to a parking lot. He glances at Tianlang. "This is transportation - all the players get a courtesy car," says Sessa. "I assume you are not old enough to drive yet, so, Dad, you come here to register to get your car."
"Beautiful," says Hanwen.
A caddie named Gray Moore, decked out in the standard-issue white Augusta National jumpsuit, has been assigned to Tianlang for the day. Moore is Augusta-born and raised and has been caddying at the club since 1996. "Glad you're here," says Moore to the Guans in a biscuit gravy-thick Southern accent. "Congratulations."
While the members hit balls on the smaller driving range, Tianlang gets the nearby huge pro range all to himself. He hits a couple dozen shots, chips for about 10 minutes and then makes his way to the tip of the No. 1 tee box. "You ready to play?" says Sessa, who is waiting for them.
And for the next four hours or so, Tianlang has a gas. Moore holds his hand by pointing out shot lines for the fairways and fall lines on the greens. He places markers on each green to give Tianlang an idea where the pins will likely be placed during the tournament. And he doesn't stop at Thursday and Friday. He gives the Saturday and Sunday pin placements too.
Tianlang isn't going to be able to reach any of the par-5s in two shots. That's OK - Zach Johnson won a green jacket doing the same thing. But there are a few par-4s (No. 7, in particular) that Tianlang might have difficulty reaching or holding in two.
As the practice round progresses, you can see Moore's level of respect grow. Tianlang's short game is precise. His iron and fairway wood play is solid. His drives are a little longer than expected. "He's still world-class," says Moore. "And 14? Amazing. He's played beautifully."
As they make the turn, a foursome comes off the 18th green. "How old is he? 18?" asks one of the member's guests. "No, 14," says another guest. A photo is taken. "Might be worth something one day," says one of the guests.
The group's caddie circles over to say hello to Hanwen. "I'm father," says Mr Guan. "Congratulations," says the caddie, shaking Hanwen's hand.
On No. 10, Tianlang asks Moore to show him exactly where Bubba escaped the Georgia pine straw to win last year's Masters in a playoff. "Where?" says Tianlang, as they walk off the fairway toward the trees. "Right here," says Moore, "that is where he was."
"Oh, so. . . still a little room here."
"He was way in there."
"A little bit."
"He had to snap hook it. He aimed for the middle of the bunker and hooked the gap wedge."
"Yeah, I got it - 150 [yards]."
See, the kid knows his history. He knows what bunkers Mickelson performed miracles out of. He knows how many times Nicklaus has won here. He knows the line of Tiger's chip on No. 16, the one that CBS's Verne Lundquist simply said, "In your LIFE, have you seen anything like that?"
Tianlang pars the always-gorgeous par-3 12th. He tries to reach the par-5 13th in two, but almost puts it in Rae's Creek. Doesn't matter. He chips up and two putts for par. I didn't keep score, but Tianlang couldn't have shot much worse than even-par 72 or 73. If he was nervous, he didn't show it. "Everybody will be pulling for him," said Moore.
How can you not pull for a 14-year-old whose own superpower country doesn't fully appreciate what will happen here Thursday? How can you not admire his mixture of innocence and focus? He has thought about Augusta National ever since he sank that 5-foot putt last November in Thailand. "But when I came here today, it really seems to come true," Tianlang said.
What was it Hanwen said about his son's golf dreams? That it was like someone wanting to be Superman.
Well, guess who got his cape?