SYDNEY – Few issues in the world of golf arouse more excitement than the potential of the Chinese market and schoolboy Guan Tianlang is learning fast that every promising talent from the country is going to be subject to intense scrutiny.
The 14-year-old showed that he might just have the temperament to deal with that expectation when he posted a round of two-under par 70 at the Australian Open on Friday and earned a practice date with Tom Watson at next year’s U.S. Masters.
Guan ensured he would become the youngest player ever to compete at Augusta by winning the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship last month and many predict it will not be his last visit to a major.
“He’s the best kid I’ve seen anywhere ... I think he’ll be the first Chinese major winner,” Danny Webb, the 58-year old Toronto native who has been coaching Guan since he was six, told Reuters by telephone from Shenzhen.
“He makes adjustments to pressure. You don’t see very often where he’s affected by pressure. And when he is, he adjusts very quickly.
“Most golfers don’t have that kind of confidence until they’re 30. He’s unique this way.”
It is a common refrain from those who surround Guan and, even if he missed the cut in Sydney, he impressed with the way he rebounded from the disappointment of a first round 82 in high winds at The Lakes.
“I felt very comfortable today, I got some good shots and I made more birdies,” Guan told Reuters in an interview after he had enjoyed a post-round lunch.
“Yesterday was pretty windy and there were more people watching me than normal, so I got a little bit nervous at the start. I played my own game on the back nine and got better.
“Today I got even better. There were even more people today but I’m getting used to it.”
Guan has been engrossed in the sport since he was four and queued up to get Watson’s autograph on his cap before signing a few of his own and then chatting with the eight-times major champion.
“He said I was doing pretty well and he said I am still a kid,” Guan recalled, running his hand through his cropped hair.
“I asked him if he was going to the Masters and he said ‘yes’ and then he said ‘let’s play a practice round on Tuesday afternoon’.
“I just want to do my best at Augusta, it will be a great experience for me. I think I will have fun there.”
Nicknamed LangLang, Guan started swinging a club for fun at the age of four and was already impressive enough at six for his Guangzhou doctor father Guan Hanwen and mother Liu Hongyu to invest heavily in his future.
“The family made a decision when he was six years old that they were going to focus on his golf career,” said Webb, a 23-year PGA of Canada member who went to China in 2004 and now runs runs the largest golf academy in Shenzhen. “They’re a team, the three of them. Like Team Tiger, they’re Team Langlang.
“His mum has always dressed him in PGA tour clothes. He’s always looked like a miniature PGA guy.”
Team Langlang were with him at the Australian Open, his father chipping in to remind him to explain that a change to three of his clubs had also contributed to his disappointment in the first round.
Guan said he thought it was his driving he needed to work on most.
“My short game is pretty good right now,” he said. “I think right now I have to be stronger and get more distance but I can’t train too hard right now. I need to get more power to draw the ball, fade the ball.”
Webb said Guan had shown from a young age that intensive study of televised golf had given him plenty of flexibility.
“He could show us five different swings when he was six,” he recalled. “Most people when they’re six in China have no idea who Chris DiMarco is, but he did.
“Jim Furyk, a little more obvious, Ernie Els, and of course Tiger Woods and his own swing. He could mimic the characteristics of all four of those PGA tour players. It was really amazing.”
Clearly knowledgeable about the game, Guan was astonished when asked if he knew who Watson was before he came to Australia.
It is, however, to compatriot and ‘big brother’ Liang Wenchong, the first Chinese to make the cut at a major, he has turned most recently for advice.
“My goal is Tiger,” Guan said. “But I got more in touch with Liang. I partnered with him at the Dongfeng Nissan Cup and I learned a lot from him.”
Liang’s manager Jacky Peng is convinced Guan has what it takes to succeed.
“I brought an 18-year-old Chinese player over here earlier this year and he fell apart after a poor front nine,” he said. “Langlang has a strong heart. Even when things go wrong, he remains calm.”
Playing in Australia was all part of Team Langlang’s carefully considered plan to expose Guan to different conditions but professionalism could still be many years away.
“We have no schedule for him to turn professional at 16, 18 or 20,” his father said.
“It all depends on his level. He’s going to play tournaments in different countries and different conditions and get experience and we’ll see how it goes.”
Webb is certain that Guan is “right into” his golf and not just living his parents’ dreams.
“I still go to school every weekday in Guangzhou and practice golf for two hours, on the weekends I play a bit more golf,” Guan said.
“The most important thing for me is golf, for sure. I don’t have much time for anything else but sometimes I play basketball, or some other things with my friends.”