China may be set to dominate golf, but young Guan Tianlang isn’t ready to master Augusta

Guan Tianlang. Picture: AP
Guan Tianlang. Picture: AP
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THE story so far. The youngest player ever to tee up in a European Tour event (this year’s Volvo China Open), he weighs nine stone and stands maybe five feet, eight inches tall.

Not that long ago, he celebrated his 14th birthday. He hits the ball maybe 250 yards off the tee, on average. He uses a belly putter and a cross-handed grip. The clubs in his bag are a mixture of Nike irons, a Titleist hybrid and Callaway woods and wedges. He likes the Nike gear though. His bag, glove, shoes and shirt all sport the famous swoosh. And, most important of all, Guan Tianlang won this year’s Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship, a victory that next April will see him become – at 14 years and 168 days old – the youngest ever Masters competitor at Augusta National.

That last bit is both a source of great excitement – five-times Open champion Tom Watson has already offered to accompany him on a Tuesday afternoon practice round – and, sad to say, a potential embarrassment to a clearly talented and charmingly polite young man. Based on two days following Guan over the first 36 holes of the Australian Open, a few things are clear:

Guan’s relatively weak and excessively high-flying shots are ill suited to the sort of breezy environment he found at The Lakes course in Sydney. He needs to practise more in the sorts of winds that blew him to the eight over par 36-hole aggregate (152) that saw him comfortably miss the cut. Compared to the beautifully flighted howitzer-like shots struck by his playing partner, Australian Marc Leishman, the slightly built Chinese’s efforts were popgun-like in their almost complete lack of penetration.

That weakness was especially noticeable during Guan’s opening round of 82. Teeing off in the afternoon, when the wind strength peaked, the youngster was five over par after only four holes and seven over the card by the turn. The conditions were more than he could handle.

In contrast, armed with a 7am start in flat calm conditions on day two, Guan played his first nine holes in three under par. Thereafter, the wind rising by the minute, he struggled more and more. But a succession of hard-earned pars – and a nice birdie at the short 9th, his final hole – saw him round in an impressive two-under par 70.

“The way he never panicked, even after such a bad start on day one, was very striking,” said Leishman. “Yes, there are things he needs to work on. But mostly he just needs to grow and get stronger. He seems to have all the tools to be successful.”

Still, as his playing companion alluded to, Guan’s slightness of stature and relative youth mean he is presently nowhere near long enough off the tee to compete successfully at professional level. Downwind, his lack of oomph is less noticeable but into the wind it is readily apparent. On average, Guan’s tee-shots expired a good 60-70 yards before those of the powerful Leishman, who is, admittedly, not exactly short.

Unless Guan manages to add 50 yards to his drives and maybe 50 pounds to his relatively puny physique, it is hard to imagine him being able to reach many of Augusta’s par-4s in regulation, or, in turn, break 80 in either of the two rounds he is surely destined to play in the 2013 Masters.

Then again, maybe the newly enlightened green jackets in charge of the “toonamint” will allow him to play from the women’s tees that will surely have been introduced by next April (just kidding).

Then there’s his pace of play. It’s safe to say that Guan will only rarely be in any danger of having to wait for the group in front. As one Yorkshire worthy once said of former Ryder Cup player Ken Brown, “the guy is slower than soil erosion”. And that did not escape the notice of at least one rules official patrolling The Lakes last week. Walking from the 12th green – where he took an inordinate amount of time to miss his putt for par – to the 13th tee, Guan was warned that “one more bad time will mean a one-shot penalty”.

On the other side of the ledger, Guan has obviously been blessed with the type of calmness golfers typically need to succeed. While one is loath to lapse into cliché, the word “inscrutable” is an apt description of his on-course demeanour. Certainly, the slow-play warning did not seem to outwardly upset his equilibrium, nor did the obvious and increasing impatience shown by his other partner, Robert Allenby, although that may have had as much to do with the grumpy Australian’s poor form. Neither did Guan’s inadequacy off the tee. Not once did he lose his enviably smooth rhythm, not once did he seem to be “pressing” in a vain effort for more distance.

Like most adolescents who have advanced beyond their years in golfing terms, Guan possesses an enviable touch on and around the greens. While not quite at tour standard, his ability to save par from unlikely spots was clearly a big part of the recent Asia-Pacific victory that instantly made him famous across the golfing world.

Most positively, Guan was clearly paying attention to what was going on around him, even if he did admit to being a little unnerved by the size of the galleries following his group. Newly retired former Australian cricket captain Ricky Ponting was just one of many interested spectators.

“I know I will have to work on my shots into the wind,” he said, after completing that commendable second round of 70. “I know that I hit them too high right now. I need to hit them more like Marc did, lower and harder. And I wish I could hit the ball longer with my driver. But that is not so much of a worry. My drives will get longer as I get bigger and stronger.”

Guan, of course, was not the only Chinese player at The Lakes. As part of the One-Asia Tour, the Australian Open field contained as many as 16 competitors from the populous land many learned observers feel will inevitably come to dominate golf over the next 50 years or so. Guan, in fact, wasn’t even the only 14-year old. His compatriot Andy Zhang was another, with Zhang, who qualified for the US Open this year, actually looking the more impressive of the two prodigies.

“Zhang already hits the ball like a 20-year-old,” says former tour pro Grant Dodd, now a fairway commentator for Channel Seven here in Australia. While such a trend is clearly encouraging for the continuing growth of golf in China, less heartening is the fact that so many of the Chinese players seem to swing the club in depressingly similar ways.

Individuality is definitely not their thing, as a stroll along the line on the range was quick to reveal. Instead, they appeared to be a series of clones, all working through virtually identical pre-shot routines before making virtually identical swings and hitting virtually identical shots.

For those who think of golf as an art form rather than a science, the future looks bleak indeed.