The exposure of a minor, even one as precocious as Tianlang Guan, to the rigours of Augusta might be a matter for campaigners against cruelty to children. On the plus side, being just 14 he has yet to learn fear. The game is all about what he can do, not what he cannot, and so he throws a row of pearly teeth at the enormity of the challenge that faces him at the Masters this week.
After a practice round with Ben Crenshaw today, Guan has an advocate. Crenshaw, 50 years the Chinese schoolboy's senior, was minded to recall what he was doing at the same age. It took a while to download the memory and when it finally registered, the answer re-inforced just how special Guan is. "I had a girlfriend and did not play a lot of golf that summer. My dad chastised me for it," Crenshaw said shaking his head. "He looks like he eats, sleeps and breathes golf right now."
That Guan has aroused interest in this precinct was obvious judging by the footfall snaking around Augusta in his wake. Even on the range at sun-up he was hitting before more people than he had seen at any golf course at home. Few could pronounce his name, still fewer knew how he got here. Fourteen and from China was pretty much all they knew. It was enough. Crenshaw filled in a few of the gaps.
"Trust me, he is a lot more mature than 14. He has proved himself in competition over there (Asia). He didn't seem intimidated. He has his feet on the ground. He's been here [Augusta] a while so he is getting a good dose of it, but the bottom line is you can't learn enough about it."
Indeed. The pair went off at the tenth. Guan did not hit a green in regulation on that fabled plank the golfers are made to walk, also known as Amen Corner. With so little length to work with off the tee, Guan carries the ball only 230 yards, he will be going in with the bigger sticks, which fills the heart with dread. It seemed at times that the huge galleries were witness to a drowning they could not prevent.
Playing Crenshaw helped and revealed a degree of foresight on behalf of the nipper and his advisors, who emailed the two-time Masters champion a month ago to ask if he might show him the ropes. There was a welcome clinic on the greens and some hot tips on what side of the pin to attack, or not as the case often is here. Guan took the tiger line down 10, gaining a run off the slope. Crenshaw went first to the green with a rescue club and found the putting surface. From position A, Guan was short and right leaving himself a vicious chip up the slope.
It was the same story on 11, the entry to Amen corner, Crenshaw on in two via driver and 3-wood, Guan right of the green. Both found the bunker at the signature par-3 12th and on the par-5 13th, Guan was through the green in three having laid up in two. This was not a concern for Guan, who explained that he was not threatened by the challenge, but rather, determined to enjoy it. He told us all of this in improving English, and with an absence of turbulence freakish in one so callow.
"Every tournament is a challenge because you want to play well," he said. "You have to prepare for it and try to do your best. I'm not going to push myself too hard. I'm trying just to enjoy my game, play my best and hopefully shoot a good score."
Crenshaw claimed it would shock him to see Guan survive into the weekend. "When you watch him approach a shot, watch him concentrate, it is real fun to watch that. He is still growing. He hits the ball fine, adequate. He has a good short game. You have to have touch around here. He handled some of those short shots well and hit some good shots too.
"It is a learning and maturation process around here. Balance, rhythm, concentration and nerve is always what it is going to take to play around here. You have to be confident in your ability to hit the ball the right distance on your approach shots and recover when you make mistakes. You have to take chances, too. That is the way you get ahead. He will keep learning. With some breaks and good shots it would not surprise me to see him play the weekend."
In one respect Guan, who qualified for the Masters via the Asia Pacific amateur title, blew old Ben out of the park in iridescent lime green trousers and funky top. This kid would not be seen dead in chinos, the death trouser for any fairway hipster younger than 30. "What do you make of those pants, Ben?" asked one boozed-up patron in bad shorts and polyester. "Maybe next time," Crenshaw said smiling at the sartorial ambition of youth.
Guan has booked an Augusta lesson tomorrow with young Tom Watson, only 49 years to the good, and Sir Nick Faldo tomorrow. At some point he is also expecting a tap on the shoulder from a bloke called Tiger Woods. "We haven't talked yet, but I think probably we will."