Masters: Tianlang Guan learning from the masters

Tianlang Guan cuts a cool figure during practice yesterday despite being the youngest-ever competitor. Picture: Getty
Tianlang Guan cuts a cool figure during practice yesterday despite being the youngest-ever competitor. Picture: Getty
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REFERENCE to homework books was the only thing that gave it away. Apart from that, 14-year-old Tianlang Guan handled his pre-Masters press conference like a seasoned professional.

Without little help from his translator, he answered every question with honesty and sincerity. Heck, there was even a bit of humour thrown in, too.

On Thursday, he’ll become the youngest player to tee it up in the Masters. It may well prove an occasion way too difficult for someone so young to handle. But he’ll be well prepared.

Yesterday, Guan played a practice round with Ben Crenshaw, a two-time Masters champion. Today he’s been fixed up with eight-time major winner Tom Watson. Add in advice he’s getting from Tiger Woods and Sir Nick Faldo and no wonder he’s like a kid let loose in a sweetie shop.

“It was great to play with Mr Crenshaw and he told me a lot about the course,” said Guan of a valuable experience that was set up by the general manager of his golf club in China. “I’m also going to play with Mr Tom Watson tomorrow and I’ll see Sir Nick Faldo today or tomorrow as well. We are also playing the par-3 together.”

And Woods, who provided the inspiration for Guan to choose golf above the likes of basketball as his chosen sport? “I played with him twice in the last couple of years and he gives me lots of advice and confidence,” he added.

Guan, who has been coached close to his home in Guangzhou from the age of six, earned his spot amongst the game’s elite this week – he’s one of six amateurs in the field – by winning the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship last November. At 7,435 yards, the course is expected to provide the sternest test of his fledgling career. Consequently, he’s not making any rash predictions.

“I would agree that I am maybe not long enough and at holes like the first and 11th I will probably be hitting a rescue or fairway wood for my second,” he said. “But I’m not going to push myself too hard. I’m just going to try to enjoy it, play my best and hopefully make some good scores.”

Like Woods at the same age, Guan is no ordinary 14-year-old. “I don’t have too much time to do a lot of other things, but I enjoy playing golf,” he declared. But does he feel he’s perhaps missing out? “No,” was his reply.

The homework books were packed for this trip along with the yardage books. “I’ll do pretty much all of the work I’ve got to do – but just not too much,” he said to a chorus of laughter.

He had an audience of seasoned hacks eating out of the palm of his hand from start to finish, in fact. Was this the most people he’d ever seen on a golf course when he was playing? “Oh, definitely,” he replied with an almost cheeky nod.

Guan certainly has excellent pedigree. He’s the youngest player to win the China Amateur Open and also claimed the 2011 Junior World Golf Championship with a record 18-under-par total. “I don’t feel older than 14 but I want to say it because I have the confidence and know I can play well,” he said. “I think it’s good for Chinese golf that I’m here because it might help more people take up the game.”

Nicolas Colsaerts, another player making his Masters debut this week, wasn’t nearly ready to be exposed to such a test when he was 14. “There was no chance for me to be successful that young because I had no idea really what I’d got myself into,” he said.

The Belgian is ready now, though, and has arrived at Augusta bubbling with excitement after getting the chance to pick the brains of none other than Jack Nicklaus about one of his happy hunting grounds last week. Nicklaus, who recorded the first of six Masters triumphs exactly 50 years ago, gave Colsarts an hour of his time last week and was grilled by him.

“I was in the clubhouse at West Palm Beach three days ago chatting with two members when Jack Jnr came in and, having caddied for his dad when he won in 1986, I asked him what his advice would be for the Masters,” revealed Colsaerts. “He stood there for maybe ten seconds and then came out with a very clever quote of, ‘I would just talk to dad’.

“He asked if he wanted me to call him and I’m like, ‘yeah, if that’s a possibility, that would be awesome’. Jack came and we sat at a table for an hour pretty much speaking about every hole.

“I felt lucky to get that chance. I felt I had the course screened pretty well for someone that’s never played here before. And, having added the information he gave me, it’s given me quite a confidence boost as I know that I had the right eyes on certain parts of the course.”

Colsaerts putted the lights out on the opening day of last year’s Ryder Cup in Chicago, where he was part of Europe’s winning team. A similar effort on the greens would come in handy this week. “I don’t average 27 putts per round – people just think I do after the Ryder Cup,” he joked. “But certain players come here and look at this place and feel like they have the game that suits it – and I definitely think that I do. I like my chances this week.”