By Doug Ferguson
AP Golf Writer
Guan Tianlang is an eighth-grader from China who barely weighs 125 pounds and doesn’t hit the golf ball far enough to reach some par 4s. The next stop for the 14-year-old prodigy will be the Masters, where he will tee it up with Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, and Bubba Watson at Augusta National.
Guan completed a wire-to-wire victory Sunday, Nov. 4 in the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship, making a 5-foot par putt on the final hole at Amata Spring Country Club for a one-shot win that earned him an invitation to the Masters.
“I’m really excited about it,” Guan said after closing with a 1-under 71. “I will be training maybe a little bit harder and get some more power because I’m still growing right now. So it will be great fun.”
He is believed to be the youngest male to play in a major championship. Andy Zhang of China, who trained at a golf academy in Florida, was 14 years, 6 months when he qualified for the U.S. Open last summer at The Olympic Club. Guan would be about a month younger.
Woods could have seen this coming.
Just two years ago, Woods was playing in the HSBC Champions pro-am at Sheshan International in Shanghai when Guan was in a group of juniors who played with him on the par-3 17th hole. Woods was amazed that day, not only at the polished swing of a 12-year-old, but the poise Guan showed at performing on such a stage, more than a thousand people in the gallery, an audience that included Woods, a 14-time major champion.
Even with a spot in the Masters on the line, Guan didn’t flinch.
Pan Cheng-tsung of Taiwan, the second-ranked amateur in Asia, made par on the 18th hole for a 65 that left him one shot behind. Guan, the youngest player at the Asia-Pacific Amateur, hits the ball only about 250 yards off the tee, and even a 3-wood for his second shot left him short of the green. Guan had made bogey twice on the 18th during the tournament.
“I think about it a little at the last hole, but I’m trying not to get it in my mind,” Guan said, referring to the Masters invitation. “So I just want to focus on my game. I got a little bit nervous on the last putt because that’s the winning putt. But I just do my own routine and everything is good.”
He rolled in the final stroke with a belly putter, which he began using in June because he feels more stable over the putts.
Guan’s choice of putter is sure to draw more attention to the debate over the club, which is anchored to the body. The U.S. Golf Association and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club are close to announcing a decision on whether to ban such a putting stroke.
For now, it’s another amazing feat for the eighth-grader at Zhi Xin Middle School in Guangzhou.
Guan started playing when he was 4, going to the golf course with his parents. He goes to California for about three months during the year, staying with relatives in Los Angeles and San Diego to train. He first got attention last year at the Junior World Golf Championships in San Diego when he won his age division (11-12) by 11 shots.
He was invited to play in the China Open in April, making him the youngest competitor in a European Tour-sanctioned event. Guan missed the cut.
“I feel pretty comfortable with that,” Guan said. “I didn’t do well, but it’s still a great experience for me. I think it’s going to help me in the Masters.”
Guan said he has been watching the Masters every year since 2005, when Woods hit a chip from behind the green on the par-3 16th that hung on the lip for a second before it took one last turn and dropped for a birdie, carrying him to a playoff win and his fourth green jacket.
Woods is his favorite player. Along with hitting a tee shot with him on the 17th hole during the HSBC Champions pro-am in Shanghai, he met Woods again during a Nike clinic at Mission Hills a year later.
“I think he has a strong mind and a strong heart, so I think that’s why he’s so great,” Guan said. “I played the hole each time with Tiger, and he knows me the second time,” Guan said. “We talk a little bit and I just really like him.”
Guan said he would like to play a practice round with Woods at the Masters. “Or anyone else, because the guys that go to Augusta are all fantastic players.”
He became the first Chinese player to win the Asia-Pacific Amateur, which was created by Augusta National and the Royal & Ancient to help inspire growth in the emerging golf nations of Asia. This was the fourth year for the tournament.
Along with getting into the Masters, Guan earns a spot in the final stage of qualifying for the British Open. Pan, the runner-up, also gets a spot in the British Open qualifier.
Guan, who opened with rounds of 66-64 to build a five-shot lead, finished at 15-under 273. He felt the pressure toward the end of the final round after a bogey on the 16th hole. But he handled the island-green 17th with a par, and then clipped a 60-degree sand wedge for his 5-foot par putt and the win.
Oliver Goss of Australia, a quarterfinalist at the U.S. Amateur, closed with a 72 to finish third. Hideki Matsuyama, Asia’s No. 1 amateur who was going for his third straight Asia-Pacific Amateur title, shot 68 and was five shots behind. Matsuyama made the cut at the Masters the last two years.
“I’m so excited,” Guan said. “I’m really happy to become the youngest player at the Masters and looking forward to going there. I don’t know what’s going to happen there, but I know I just want to do well.”
Guan added to what already has been a historic year at Augusta National, which in August invited Darla Moore and Condoleezza Rice to become the first female members in its 80-year history. In April, there will be two women in green jackets, and an eighth-grader from China trying to win a green jacket. (end)