Breakout-talent Guan Tianlang gets up close and personal with the world’s best player.
Tiger Woods was practicing at the Masters driving range on Monday when up walked 14-year-old Chinese prodigy Guan Tianlang, greeting the superstar player who had inspired him to start golfing.
Guan asked Woods to autograph his cap and in addition to doing that, Woods invited Guan along for an afternoon back-nine Augusta National practice round with Dustin Johnson, a session in which Woods taught Guan some Masters secrets.
“He hits it good,” Woods said. “I showed him a few of the pins, helped him a little bit. The kid is 14. He’s good. We had a good time.”
After playing fabled Amen Corner — his favorite holes on the course — with the 14-time major champion he dreams of emulating, Guan spent another half hour on the putting green with Woods.
“Every time I play with him, I feel a lot better and give myself some confidence,” Guan said. “It’s very good.”
They skipped balls together across the surface of the water at the par-3 16th hole and finished as the shadows began to fall across the course.
Much the way Woods has set a goal of surpassing the 18 career major titles of boyhood hero Jack Nicklaus, Guan dreams of a calendar-year Grand Slam, a feat not even Woods has managed even though he has won four majors in a row.
“He can’t play for his high school team because he’s in middle school and now he’s in the Masters,” Woods said. “That’s pretty amazing.”
Guan had played alongside Woods in a pro-am event in China and a practice round at Shanghai, but Monday’s Masters practice session with the World No. 1 came after a morning practice round with two-time Masters winner Ben Crenshaw.
“He told me a lot,” Guan said of Crenshaw. “We really enjoyed it on the golf course.”
Guan and Woods are the week’s scene stealers, the Chinese teen because he will replace Italy’s Matteo Manassero as the youngest player in Masters history. Manassero was 16 when he played in 2010.
Woods is a favorite to capture a fifth green jacket this week after winning this year at Torrey Pines, Doral and Bay Hill to vault past Rory McIlroy into the top ranking for the first time since October of 2010.
“He’s hitting it nicely,” US veteran Steve Stricker said Monday, a day after a practice round with Woods. “Looks like he’s got a ton of confidence in that putter too, which you need to go around here.
“It looks like he’s comfortable in his game and I expect him to be in the mix come Sunday for sure.”
Woods has not won a major since the 2008 US Open and has not captured the Masters since 2005, but past leg injuries have healed and Woods’ infamous 2009 sex scandal is old news, unlike his new girlfriend, US ski star Lindsey Vonn.
“He’s happy and he’s relaxed and he just feels good about what he’s doing with his game,” Stricker said. “And it’s showing in his attitude, too.”
Even a Masters newcomer like Belgium’s Nicolas Colsaerts knows better than to dismiss Woods at Augusta National.
“He’s one of the players that knows the course like the back of his hand. He knows what shots to hit here and there,” Colsaerts said. “But there are so many young players now ruling world golf.
“Tiger is always a factor. He’s always going to be a favorite in any tournament he plays, of course. But there are so many other players that can play this course.”
American Matt Kuchar, who shared third last year, matched 2012 winner Bubba Watson as the only players to break par in all four rounds. He recalled playing alongside Woods the way Guan did Monday and having trouble simply starting.
“I can remember teeing it up with Tiger Woods and being glad I got the ball to balance on the tee, being so nervous,” Kuchar said. “That was like a big moment, that it just stayed without falling down, and me trembling so bad that I didn’t knock the ball off.
“I could have been too young to know what I was really in for. At 14, you may be too young to know what you’re in for.”
Stricker was stunned to learn Guan is only 14.
“I just can’t imagine being that young and competing at this level at such an early age,” Stricker said. “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.”
But Stricker would not want to see an age limit on who can earn their way into the Masters.
“If a little boy or little girl is good enough to compete at a high level, why should you penalise them for being young?” Stricker said.
“It just gives them an opportunity to compete at that level and gain more and more experience and confidence if they do play well at an early age.
“And maybe they come out and be the next Tiger Woods.”