Jason Dufner is the defending champ and 14-year-old Chinese amateur Guan Tianlang, who made the cut at the Masters two weeks ago as the youngest contestant in tournament history, got a sponsors invite this week in New Orleans.
During a month he spent in China earlier this year, Faldo had time to observe and talk to Guan about his golf game and his plans. At Mission Hills in Shenzhen, China, before Guan and his parents traveled to Augusta to prepare for the Masters, Guan received the Mission Hills Trophy for leading the Faldo Series the previous year.
“He’s got growing to do -- physically, mentally, all those things,” Faldo said. “There’s absolutely no rush. Golf is a sport that we can view as a 20-year window competing at the highest level. Do you get started at 14 to go to 34? Do you get started at 20 to go to 40? I think that’s the smartest thing.
“If he’s won everything by the time he’s 18, then, yeah, maybe. Once you’ve cleaned up as an amateur, and you really are the best, then you think about doing it. You get the opportunity to play in pro events and you can really gauge yourself. And if you’re playing nicely as an amateur, finishing top 10 in pro events, well then, yeah, maybe there’s a decision to make about turning pro.”
Because of its history as the club co-founded by Bob Jones, considered the greatest amateur in the sport’s history, the Augusta National Golf Club has always had a keen interest in identifying and promoting the world’s best amateur players by issuing earned exemptions into the field at the Masters. Guan earned his exemption. He was the youngest player competing in the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship. He was ranked 290th in the world amateur rankings. By holing a critical 6-footer for par on the 72nd hole to secure the victory, Guan was catapulted into the world spotlight. So far, he has reacted to its glare with aplomb.
As he glided through the Masters with blissful serenity, tipping his cap to applauding patrons, holing putts from Atlanta to Aiken, dead-handing soft, seeing-eye chips and pitches that drew immediate and enthusiastic applause from fellow competitor Ben Crenshaw, a two-time champion at the Masters who was the low amateur at the Masters 40 years ago.
“There’s magic in those hands,” Crenshaw, who should know, told John Hopkins, the Welsh golf writer and for many years the golf correspondent for the Sunday Times.
Of that there can be no dispute. Guan is a legitimate short-game wizard. He finished the week at the Masters tied for first in putting, averaged just 1.39 putts per hole and did not have a 3-putt -- or a score higher than bogey -- for the 72 holes. What that tells you is Guan already has a very important skill, something that many TOUR pros take a lifetime to learn: he knows how to score.
He also knows how to get the most out of his 5-foot-9, 135-pound frame. He was the shortest hitter in the Masters field, no surprise and probably no long-term concern. This week during practice rounds in New Orleans at the TPC Louisiana, where he is likely to again be the shortest hitter, Guan took on the 476-yard, par-4 sixth hole into a headwind. He had a 220-yard second shot, which he took care of with a 4-wood to about 20 feet. He made it for birdie.
“His name translated to ‘Big and Strong,’ and, obviously, he’s 4 feet tall,” Faldo said. “We did everything by sign language. He followed us around and became our little mascot for the weekend. I’d just point high, and he’d hit a high wedge. I’d point low and he’d hit it low. He was just watching, doing his own thing, and you could just see him thinking, ‘That’s what I want to do when I get big.’
“It’s what I said years ago about places like China. As soon as they get a hero, watch out. And now, my goodness, their hero is only 14 years old.”
Also video of what's in D.A. Points' bag