14 year old Chinese prodigy becomes youngest ever Master competitor…providing a taste of the communist country’s future ambitions in the sport
As Guan Tianlang tees off at the Masters today, incredibly he will be the only golfer in the field worrying about finishing his school homework.
Because at 14-years-old, Guan is the youngest person to ever play in the Masters and the youngest player to compete at any of golf’s major tournaments in 148-years.
His phenomenal rise has led some to speculate on the future strength of Chinese golf and how that will affect America’s traditional control over the game – with massive investment being injected into the sport ahead of its inclusion in the Rio Olympic Games of 2016.
Youngest Ever: Amateur Guan Tianlang, 14, of China, walks with Nick Faldo, during the par three competition before the Masters golf tournament on Wednesday
For the moment, however, at Augusta, the prodigous talents of Tianlang are the talk of the golfing community as he mingles with one-time child prodigy Tiger Woods and prepares to make history.
Tiger Woods was 21 when he set 20 records to win the 1997 Masters. Sergio Garcia was 19 when he nearly beat Woods in the PGA Championship two years later.
Tianlang qualified by winning the Asia Pacific Amateur Championship last fall in Thailand, and now he gets a crack at the best in the game, on one of the most famous golf courses in the world.
And when he tees-off today, at the age of 14-years and five months, he will become the youngest competitor at the Masters – bearing the record held by 16-year-old Matteo Manassero.
knew he was young,’ Steve Stricker said Monday. ‘I didn’t know he was the same age as my daughter. Yeah, that’s remarkable. And I’ve been telling my daughter the same with this Lydia Ko, who has been playing on the LPGA Tour.
‘I just can’t imagine being that young and competing at this level at such an early age. It will be interesting. I’ll be interested to see how he does and how he handles it and how he plays. It’s remarkable that he’s even playing.’
Having taken time off from school in Guangzhou, Guan was only 13 when he became the youngest player to ever contest a European Tour event in 2012.
‘I don’t think there’s another country in the world that is putting as much into golf as China — in terms of the resources, energy and money,’ said Michael Dickie, the Scotland-born head coach of China’s women’s Olympic team to CNN.
‘Look at most other countries, they support players as amateurs but the support stops once they get to pro — then, they’re on their own and have to do it themselves.
‘But our girls — all they need to do is train. We do the logistics, which tournaments will suit them and where they should train. We also have a physio, fitness instructor, technical coaches and people arranging logistics, visa, flights and hotels.
‘And the state is paying for it all. It is like a monster sponsorship program.’
Previously, golf was considered too elite and bourgeois a pastime and following China’s cultural revolution of 1966 to 1977 most golf courses were dug up and the land given over to farmers.
Eight years after Chairman Mao died, China built its first modern-day golf course in 1984, but still the stigma of golf as a wealthy sport remained.
This is partly an geographic concern, because with 20 percent of the world’s population living on six percent of the planet’s total area – land in China is not easy to come by.
However, over the course of the past 10-years, the number of golf course has tripled to 600 and by 2015, the country expects 52 million people to be regular golfers.
Indeed, while the booming middle class in China will account for the explosion in numbers, the average cost of joining a Chinese golf club is $53,000, with a round costing $150.
But since the decision to include golf as an Olympic sport was made, the Chinese government began to heavily invest.
At his academy in Shanghai, Dickie has a team of 15 Olympic hopefuls, all of whom now experience the famous Chinese commitment to ensuring success in sports.
‘On a normal day, we get up at 0630 and do a fitness session for an hour,’ he says to CNN. ‘After breakfast, we train until midday, when we rest until 1400.
‘Then another two hours of training and then an hour of fitness training — we are heavy on fitness training — so it’s three hours of fitness and five hours of golf. Quite intense.’
In addition to this, China has brought on board Australian golfing legend Greg Norman.
The former world number one is advising the country on their best talent and how best to direct that.
‘In China, they are incredibly passionate and you see how the game is growing,’ says Hank Haney, who coached Tiger Woods for six years and who now runs several golf schools.
‘I know from my academy that Asian golfers are incredibly great students — they’re very, very focused and without a doubt, we’re going to see more and more great golfers coming from Asian.
‘It won’t be long before China is a big part of that.’