With temperatures stuck in the 30s one recent morning, a chilly breeze rolled across the driving range as Tianlang Guan hit pitching wedge shots to a practice green.
Bundled in his jacket, Han Wen Guan, Tianlang’s father, looked up, pointing to the blue sky above.
“Beautiful day,” he said.
These days everything is bright and beautiful for 14-year-old Tianlang, the Chinese prodigy looking to become the next Tiger Woods.
At a recent practice session at Champions Retreat Golf Club, Tianlang wore all Nike gear from head to golf cleats – just like his idol. Tianlang, who goes by “Langly” in America, did something else Woods would approve of: He arrived in Augusta a month early to prepare for his first major appearance.
While Woods made his Masters Tournament debut at age 19, Tianlang is set to become the youngest participant in tournament history, eclipsing the mark set by 16-year-old Italian Matteo Manassero in 2010. Tianlang was born Oct. 25, 1998, a year and a half after Woods won his first green jacket.
Tianlang, one of six amateurs in the field, qualified by winning the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship in November.
The Guangzhou, China, native is set to show the world his smooth swing. At Champions Retreat, he worked on his iron game, hitting one ball after another with a towel tucked into his right armpit.
“Nice. Wonderful,” Han Wen repeated after several of his son’s swings.
Tianlang still is developing his power, hitting the ball about 250 yards off the tee (235 carry).
Don’t let his lack of length fool you, though. In 2010, Tianlang, then 12, played a hole with Woods at a pro-am event at the HSBC Champions at Shanghai Sheshan International Golf Club. According to chinadaily.com, Tianlang fired a 3-wood tee shot to 10 feet at the 212-yard par-3 hole, while Woods stuck a 4-iron to eight feet and made birdie.
With Augusta National playing as long as 7,435 yards during the Masters, Tianlang likely will employ his Rocketballz Tour 3-wood (14.5 degrees), Callaway X-Hot Pro 4-wood and Callaway X-Hot Pro hybrids (20 and 23) to help him get around the course.
“My game feels comfortable,” he said. “I’m still not (long) enough.
“I feel good about my preparation. The golf course here is a bit longer for me, and the greens are tricky, quite challenging.”
The Asia-Pacific Amateur, formerly known as the Asian Amateur, was created in 2009 to help grow the game in that region. The Masters, the Royal & Ancient Golf Club and the Asia-Pacific Golf Confederation put on the event, which offers a Masters berth to the winner and an exemption into the final stage of international qualifying for the British Open for the top two finishers.
Tianlang will try to follow in the footsteps of Hideki Matsuyama, who won the Asian Amateur in 2010 and 2011. In two Masters appearances, Matsuyama made the cut both times, finishing as the low amateur with a tie for 27th place in 2011.
Tianlang plans to play practice rounds with Tom Watson and Ben Crenshaw, a pair of two-time Masters winners. He will play in the Par-3 Contest with three-time Masters champion Nick Faldo and likely will be paired with a former Masters champion during the first two rounds of the tournament.
He’s still hoping to get in a practice round with Woods.
“It is an honor for me to be able to play with the best golfers in the world,” Tianlang said. “To me, the only goal is to enjoy the event and give my best. And of course, if I can make the cut, that would be even better.”
Tianlang, the son of a doctor (Han Wen) and an engineer (Jenny), picked up golf for fun at age 4. He began playing seriously a few years later, and his game quickly developed.
In 2011, he won his age division (11-12) by 11 shots at the Junior World Golf Championships in San Diego. In April 2012, he became the youngest golfer to play in a European Tour event, the Volvo China Open. He shot 77-79 to miss the cut.
At the Asia-Pacific Amateur, Tianlang opened with rounds of 66 and 64 to take a five-shot lead. After posting 72 on Saturday, Tianlang held his game together and took a one-shot lead entering the final hole.
Needing a par on the 477-yard, par-4 18th, he striped his drive down the fairway and hit his second shot short of the green. He pitched his approach five feet past the hole, then dropped the putt for the win and an invitation to the Masters.
“Exciting,” Han Wen said. “We’re very happy for him. His friends, and all the Chinese people, are very happy.”
Golf in China has grown significantly in the past decade, and the China Golf Association recently hired Greg Norman as an adviser for its national team. China wants to field a competitive team when golf returns to the Olympic Games in 2016 in Brazil.
Tianlang isn’t alone among budding Chinese stars. Ye Wocheng, 12, qualified for the European Tour’s Volvo China Open in March with rounds of 74 and 68. He will eclipse Tianlang’s record as the youngest person to tee it up in a European Tour event.
Tianlang said last fall after his Asia-Pacific Amateur win that he hoped it would be an inspiration.
“I’m really proud of myself, and I think it really helps Chinese golf and the Chinese golfers,” he said. “They will maybe train even harder and get more people that know about that. So I’m very happy about that.”
If Tianlang wasn’t playing in the Masters, he’d be attending Zhi Xin Middle School. Instead of books, though, he’ll carry his belly putter to his outdoor classroom. Tianlang started using a belly putter in June, and it helped him win the Asia-Pacific Amateur.
No matter how he does on the greens or around the course, Tianlang just wants to soak in everything.
“It is so calm and peaceful; the scenery of Augusta National is spectacular,” he said. “You can feel that you and the golf course fit perfectly and achieve a harmony. You feel great and comfortable when you play there. You would ask for nothing more.”