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China's Standard-Bearer

by Mike Purkey - April 29, 2013

Think about it: When the first starting time is announced for Olympic golf in Rio de Janiero in 2016, Tiger Woods will be almost 41. Guan Tianlang will be 17 going on phenomenal. How do you say “superstar” in Cantonese?

This is not to say that Guan is a lock for a medal at the Olympics, gold or otherwise, and Woods is not. What it does say is that both players at that particular place and time will find themselves at the crossroads of greatness and destiny, a Instagram of world golf’s recent past and nascent future.

If you’re trying to predict what golf will look like in 2020, the Chinese now have skin in the game. It is a nation that likes to make statements without actually saying a word and if you don’t believe that ask anyone at the U.S. State Department or someone who trades in Chinese currency.

China’s future in the game is tied up in the fortunes of a 14-year-old eighth-grader. And since the closest legalized gambling to China is in Macau, this move represents a nation of 1.3 billion going all in, making the biggest bet in the country’s brief golf history.

Guan Tianlang, face of the future?

Golf is not a front-burner sport in China. In fact, it was considered a sport of the bourgeois in this communist country and the government banned the game until 1984. Since 2004, there has been an “official” moratorium on golf course development but course construction is doing an “unofficial” land office business. Amazingly, no one knows exactly how many golf courses are in China, but the estimate is somewhere around 600. Only about 10 percent of those have been built legally according to multiple reports However, now that golf is an Olympic sport again, don’t expect the Chinese to be left in the dust of a bulldozer. They will move heaven and earth to be competitive in a game that has been heretofore quite strange to them. For starters, the China Golf Association almost quietly signed on Greg Norman as chief adviser to the country’s fledgling golf program.

And Norman is happily participating. “I’m extremely proud of it,” he told Golf Channel. “I’ve never been asked by Australia, never been asked by the United States or anybody else to help guide a group of golfers to an ultimate goal of being in the Olympics. So I seized the moment.

“China’s very much in its infancy in the development program, all the way from the grassroots up to the professionals. There’s a lot for them to learn,” explained Norman, who was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 2001. “I think I can hone their skills and give them a lot of important factors about how to develop their skills to become world champions.”

Which brings us to Guan. The 14-year-old qualified for The Masters by winning the Asia-Pacific Amateur. This is the third year that the winner earned a Masters berth. Augusta National Golf Club offered this unique invitation in an effort to grow the game in Asia. If Guan is any indication, Masters officials are getting their wish.

Guan not only made the cut at The Masters, in spite of a slow-play penalty, he impressed his playing partner for the first two days, the 61-year-old Ben Crenshaw – who is borderline old enough to be Guan’s grandfather. Crenshaw, a two-time Masters champion, said that Guan played like a “28-year-old veteran.”

It’s not as if Guan came out of nowhere. He won the 11-12 age group in the Callaway Junior World in San Diego in 2011 with a record score of 18-under par for 54 holes. He won the China Amateur Open at age 13 and the China Amateur Tour at 12. He is the youngest to play in a European Tour event, having played in the Volvo China Open when he was 13. He is currently ranked No. 78 in the World Amateur Golf Rankings and is the top-ranked amateur in China.

What makes Guan so attractive is that he is from an upper-middle-class background; his father is a doctor. He is well-spoken – his English is quite good but his father speaks no English at all. And he is mature beyond his years.

But his father has given up his medical practice to help his son chase Olympic glory and wherever else Tianlang’s golf career takes him. Like the Zurich Classic, for instance, where the teenager wa given a sponsor’s exemption. He made the cut, making him the youngest in modern history to make a cut at a PGA Tour event.

Until now, the pioneer for Chinese golf has been Liang Wen-chong. Liang was the first Chinese player invited to The Masters in 2008. He missed the cut. Liang is the most successful Chinese player, having won once on the European Tour and won the Asian Tour’s Order of Merit in 2007, which earned him a berth at the 2008 Open Championship, again a first for the Chinese.

But Liang is 35 and possesses a homemade swing that serves him but you wouldn’t teach it. Guan’s swing is obviously much more polished and being under the tutelage of Norman for the next three years will, as the Brits say, do him no harm at all.

Consider this: Guan was not born when Woods won his first Masters title. Said Tiger, “I mean, that’s just frightening.”

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