Guan Tian-lang, the 13-year-old Chinese golf prodigy
Hello world. Thus did Tiger Woods express his elevation to the golfing firmament, half a lifetime ago in 1996, as a Nike posterchild of apparently cherubic innocence. Already, his words sound so last century.
For in Thursday’s first round of the China Open in Tianjin, a slip of a lad from Guangzhou will make an altogether more precocious attempt at teeing it up with the pros. His name is Guan Tian-lang and he is dare one credit it, just 13 years old.
Thirteen, when I was that age, I had to be content with victory in Royal West Norfolk’s Cholmondeley Cup — an auspicious triumph, to be sure, but one decided over a mere eight holes and to this date the only golf trophy I have ever clutched.
Thoughts of challenging Nick Faldo appeared, as celebrated scribe Pat Ward Thomas once said of his ambition to play at Ben Hogan’s Seminole, “remote to the point of dreams”.
The rise of Guan, though, proceeds at dizzying pace. Not content with being the youngest player ever to compete at a European Tour event, he gravely states his plan to make the cut and is already targeting his major championship breakthrough.
At first glance, Guan’s inclusion in this week’s 156-man field looks like an example of at best gimmickry and at worst outright gerrymandering: a ploy to solicit greater Chinese interest by throwing in an absurdly young talent far out of his depth. The move helps perpetuate a fallacy that China is poised to monopolise golf to the same degree that it has sports such as diving, even if little could be further from the truth.
When Liang Wen-chong, the son of a peasant farmer from Guangdong province, became the national No 1 two years ago it was predicted in a CNN article that China would soon be snaffling green jackets and Claret Jugs galore. To this day, the country cannot claim a single golfer inside the world’s top 250.
Guan could yet flatter to deceive in the same fashion as Liang, although one should stress that he has earned his China Open place on merit. He finished fourth in a qualifier in Hangzhou last month, ultimately sealing his spot when a rival was handed an exemption.
But it is the teenager’s record in global competition that has commanded the greatest contention. Having begun playing at four, he seized last year’s world junior title in San Diego by an extraordinary 11 shots — thanks to an opening 63, featuring nine birdies and not a single dropped shot.
The Chinese production line of sporting prodigies is well established. Fu Mingxia, a four-time Olympic champion, became known for her picture-perfect form off the high board despite the fact that at seven, she could not even swim.
Then there is ping-pong starlet Xin-Xue Feng who, as a seven-year-old, held US talk show host Ellen DeGeneres in her thrall with freakish hand-eye co-ordination. The convention endures across the land whereby children with athletic promise are taken away from home to be hothoused in the satellite schools of China’s giant state sporting machine.
Guan, as yet, suffers few such problems, remaining with his parents in Guangzhou and forging the right balance in his learning between simultaneous equations and six-irons.
“I don’t have a problem with school and golf,” he said, proudly. “I am in the top section of my class.” Neither, he insisted, did his travel commitments on the worldwide amateur circuit impinge upon his studies. “I don’t take schoolwork with me when I travel,” he explained, in his endearingly clipped English. “I just work very hard and my grades are high.” Long may his dedication be maintained.
Michelle Wie, who in so many ways prefigured his early prominence when she made the cut at the 2003 Kraft Nabisco aged 13, discovered that while her golf gifts receded, she still had the academic prowess to win a scholarship to Stanford.
Guan believes that should he play his first 36 holes at Tianjin’s Binhai Lake in even par or better, he will dip under the cut line — becoming the youngest to do since Jason Hak, who reached the weekend of the 2008 Hong Kong Open at 14, eclipsing an earlier mark set by Sergio Garcia.
But no sooner will one debut be discharged than he will address himself to the small matter of a maiden major in June.
“I think I want to qualify for the US Open,” he said, with perfect calmness. If so, Tiger had better watch his back in San Francisco; there is a new cub in town.
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