Guan Tianlang’s win in the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship last Sunday near Bangkok has everybody talking about what the accomplishment means for the 14-year-old Chinese: He will get an invitation to the 2013 Masters.
He will still be 14 then, and he’ll be the youngest player in history to compete in the Masters. As impressive as Guan’s win was, he’s getting so much attention not because of that, to be sure, but because Augusta National Golf Club invites the champion to the Masters.
Some background is necessary.
The Masters along, with the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews and the Asia Pacific Golf Confederation, started the tournament, formerly known as the Asian Amateur, in 2009. The idea, as the organizations point out in a press release, was “to help develop golf in Asia and provide a focal point for the amateur game in an area of the world where the game’s growth has unlimited potential.”
The Masters invitation to the winner was, and remains, the big prize.
The first winner, Han Chang-won of South Korea, missed the cut in the 2010 Masters. Hideki Matsuyama of Japan won the 2010 and 2011 Asia-Pacific events. He was the only amateur to make the cut in the 2011 Masters. He tied for 27th place, finishing one-under par and 13 shots behind winner Phil Mickelson. Matsuyama also made the cut this year, tying for 54th at nine over, 19 shots behind winner Bubba Watson. Matsuyama, 20, reached No. 1 last August in the world amateur golf ranking.
Guan was ranked No. 490 when he started the tournament last week in Thailand, which only makes his win that much more fantastic. He holed a six-foot par putt on the final hole to win by a shot, using a belly putter. He’s been anchoring the putter into his stomach since last June, and said it makes him feel more stable over the ball.
Never mind. It was quite something to see a 14-year-old stand over a knee-knocker of a putt to win a tournament and thereby qualify for the Masters, and roll it into the heart of the hole. He shot 15-under 273 to win.
Guan’s win might not even be the best performance from a young amateur this year. That honour goes to Lydia Ko, the 15-year-old South Korea-born winner of the CN Canadian Women’s Open in Vancouver last summer. Ko, an amateur, lives in Auckland, New Zealand. She won this important LPGA Tour event by three shots, shooting 13-under 275 at Vancouver Golf Club. Ko beat the best professionals in women’s golf, and became the youngest player in history to win on the LPGA Tour.
Then, there was Andy Zhang, another precocious 14-year-old. Zhang, like Guan, is Chinese. He narrowly missed qualifying for the U.S. Open in a playoff, and was second alternate for the tournament at the Olympic Club in San Francisco last June. Zhang was on-site and ready to play when his number came up after Brandt Snedeker and Paul Casey withdrew because of injuries. He shot 79-77, respectable scores even though he missed the cut.
Another teenager actually held the lead in the opening holes of the second round of that U.S. Open. Beau Hossler, 17, relinquished the lead after four holes that day. But the Texas teenager was just four shots out of the lead starting the final round, and in eighth place. He shot 76 to tie for 29th.
Hossler, like Ko, Zhang, and Guan, seem composed out of all proportion to their youth. There is no guarantee that any of them will succeed after they, inevitably, turn professional. But they demonstrated this year that very young golfers can do very good things in high-level golf.
As for Guan in the 2013 Masters, it’s certain that he will come under intense scrutiny. It will be amazing if he makes the cut. But he will be there, and that alone is startling.
A 14-year-old in the Masters: It’s hard to grasp, but it’s true.
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Lorne Rubenstein has written a golf column for The Globe and Mail since 1980. He has played golf since the early 1960s and was the Royal Canadian Golf Association’s first curator of its museum and library at the Glen Abbey Golf Club in Oakville, Ontario and the first editor of Score, Canada’s Golf Magazine, where he continues to write a column and features. He has won four first-place awards from the Golf Writers Association of America, one National Magazine Award in Canada, and he won the award for the best feature in 2009 from the Golf Journalists Association of Canada. Lorne has written 12 books, including Mike Weir: The Road to the Masters (2003); A Disorderly Compendium of Golf, with Jeff Neuman (2006); This Round’s on Me (2009); and the latest Moe & Me: Encounters with Moe Norman, Golf’s Mysterious Genius (2012). He is a member of the Ontario Golf Hall of Fame and the Canadian Golf Hall of Fame. Lorne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org . You can now follow him on Twitter @lornerubenstein