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14-year-old earns Masters Invite with tourney win

Chinese secret is out

Published: Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012 1:15 a.m. CDT
Caption
(Paul Lakatos)
Guan Tianlang of China reacts during the final round of the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship golf at Amata Spring Country Club, in Chonburi, Thailand on Sunday.

Guan Tianlang is an eighth-grader from China who barely weighs 125 pounds and doesn't hit the golf ball far enough to reach some par 4s. The next stop for the 14-year-old prodigy will be the Masters, where he will tee it up with Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson at Augusta National.

Guan completed a wire-to-wire victory Sunday in the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship, making a 5-foot par putt on the final hole at Amata Spring Country Club for a one-shot win that earned him an invitation to the Masters.

"I'm really excited about it," Guan said after closing with a 1-under 71. "I will be training maybe a little bit harder and got some more power for that because I'm still growing right now. So it will be great fun."

He is believed to be the youngest male to play in a major championship. Andy Zhang of China, who trained at a golf academy in Florida, was 14 years, 6 months when he qualified for the U.S. Open last summer at The Olympic Club. Guan would be about a month younger.

Woods could have seen this coming.

Just 2 years ago, Woods was playing in the HSBC Champions pro-am at Sheshan International in Shanghai when Guan was in a group of juniors who played with him on the par-3 17th hole. Woods was amazed that day, not only at the polished swing of a 12-year-old, but the poise Guan showed at performing on such a stage — more than a thousand people in the gallery, an audience that included Woods, a 14-time major champion.

Even with a spot in the Masters on the line, Guan didn't flinch.

Pan Cheng-tsung of Taiwan, the second-ranked amateur in Asia, made par on the 18th hole for a 65 that left him one shot behind. Guan, the youngest player at the Asia-Pacific Amateur, hits the ball only about 250 yards off the tee, and even a 3-wood for his second shot left him short of the green. Guan had made bogey twice on the 18th during the tournament.

"I think about it a little bit at the last hole, but I'm trying not to get it in my mind," Guan said, referring to the Masters invitation. "So just want to focus on my game. I got a little bit nervous on the last putt because that's the winning putt. But I just do my own routine and everything is good."

He rolled in the final stroke with a belly putter, which he began using in June because he feels more stable over the putts.

Guan's choice of putter is sure to draw more attention to the debate over the club, which is anchored to the body. The U.S. Golf Association and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club are close to announcing a decision on whether to ban such a putting stroke.

For now, it's another amazing feat for the eighth-grader at Zhi Xin Middle School in Guangzhou.

Guan started playing when he was 4, going to the golf course with his parents. He goes to California for about 3 months during the year, staying with relatives in Los Angeles and San Diego to train. He first got attention last year at the Junior World Golf Championships in San Diego when he won his age division (11-12) by 11 shots.

He was invited to play in the China Open in April, making him the youngest competitor in a European Tour-sanctioned event. Guan missed the cut.

"I feel pretty comfortable with that," Guan said. "I didn't do pretty well, but it's still a great experience for me. I think it's going to help me in the Masters."

Guan said he has been watching the Masters every year since 2005, when Woods hit a chip from behind the green on the par-3 16th that hung on the lip for a second before it took one last turn and dropped for birdie, carrying him to a playoff win and his fourth green jacket.

Woods is his favorite player. Along with hitting a tee shot with him on the 17th hole during the HSBC Champions pro-am in Shanghai, he met Woods again during a Nike clinic at Mission Hills a year later.

"I think he has a strong mind and a strong heart, so I think that's why he's so great, a good player," Guan said. "I played the hole each time with Tiger, and he knows me the second time. We talk a little bit and I just really like him."

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