It was quite a week for The Kid. Most 14-year-olds can’t even make their beds. But Guan Tianlang from Guangzhou, China made history, becoming the youngest ever competitor at the Masters and the youngest in any major since Young Tom Morris played in the 1860 Open at Prestwick.
The Kid, as the patrons dubbed Guan, was embraced by golf’s royalty as former Masters champions gave him lessons that will prove more valuable in his career than anything in a maths textbook. He played practice rounds with Tiger Woods and Tom Watson, played the first two rounds with Ben Crenshaw, took his one-shot penalty for slow play on Friday like a man, and charmed everyone who watched him at Augusta.
He completed his memorable week playing the final round with Sandy Lyle on the 25th anniversary of the Scot’s 1988 victory. Guan finished 12 over par after rounds of 73, 75, 77 and 75 to win the Amateur silverware as the only non-professional to make the cut. Lyle won their personal battle with a final round of one under par to finish at nine over par. “I think he was surprised how well the old farts can play,” Lyle said.
Sandy and The Kid set off up the first fairway shortly after breakfast time yesterday five hours before the leaders, yet the crowds were already huge for Masters Sunday. Sandy slapped his opening drive. It went straight down the middle, as Bing Crosby used to sing. The Kid hooked his into the trees and could do nothing but hack out sideways. Sandy sent his approach to 10 feet. The Kid’s trickled back down the slope that protects the green, chipped up and two-putted for bogey. Lyle drained his birdie chance as if to say: “Take that, sonny.”
So what did the Kid learn from Lyle? Firstly, that course management skills, and 32 years of playing the Masters will go some way to making up for the 55-year-old’s fading power and swing. “It’s getting like Disney World out there, the greens are so fast,” Lyle said. Ironic, then, that he got to share this roller-coaster ride with a 14-year-old.
The Kid’s swing has been constructed in a Chinese academy after hours of analyses of statistics and swing planes. He paints by numbers. You wonder if he will have to park up at a garage when the mechanics break down. Golf swings always break down. The Kid only had to look at his partner to see the awful truth. Sandy used to have one of the most graceful, pure swings ever. Now he plays with a stutter halfway through his backswing as if he’s checking that the club is on the right path. Every time he steps over the ball it’s like watching a tightrope walker juggling plates over the lion pit – without a safety net. Then when he finds the green, he doesn’t so much have a putter as a branding iron.
The Kid chose a belly putter, too, for the Masters and didn’t make a single three-putt (proof, if it were still needed, that they do give an advantage) but he will now go back to a conventional one. He needs to speed up, too. Or learn to cheat the clock like the tour’s snails. “The whole week was great,” he said. “I think I did a pretty good job. This is my first time to play in front of all the people and they were really nice to me and I appreciate them watching me.”
Lyle predicted a bright future. “He’s on the right track. He’s not a textbook, perfect swing now but I’m sure that will be ironed out in the next few years,” Lyle said. “If he can stay untouched by too many teachers and just play his natural game, he’ll be in good shape.”
Remember Guan’s name. We could still be calling him The Kid when he’s in his fifties.