Accept 14-year-old in Masters for what it is -- a great story
At some point in the modern 24/7/365 analysis of everything, we’ve lost a little of the magic and wonder in sports.
A barely 14-year-old Chinese middle schooler – who weighs 125 pounds and hits drives about as far as many PGA Tour pros can hit their long irons and hybrids – won the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship on Sunday and became the youngest player (by two years) in history to qualify to play in next year’s Masters Tournament.
How cool is that, right? Think about it, Guan Tianlang wasn’t even conceived when Tiger Woods rocked the golf world by winning the 1997 Masters.
I don’t know about you, but that makes me feel kind of old.
In a polarized world where nobody can come remotely close to agreeing on who should be the next president, this just has to be one of those amazing sports stories that everybody can hear and within a nanosecond come to the universal conclusion of “Awesome!”
No sooner was the news of Guan’s stunning victory in Thailand filtering across the globe than the critics started picking his accomplishment apart.
“Is Augusta National during (sic) the right thing having events that qualify 14 year olds into the event?” former PGA champion Steve Elkington wrote on Twitter.
“Is it fair for Guan to play in the 2013 Masters and for Tommy 'Two Gloves' Gainey to not get the same chance, despite shooting a final-round 60 to win the McGladrey Classic?” posed a column on ESPN.com.
“But if you’re in any doubt that it is never too late to do the right thing, then the sight of 14-year-old Guan Tianling (sic) winning his spot at the Masters using one of the damn things should convince,” wrote the Daily Mail in a missive about the suspected pending ban on anchored putters.
Point missers, all of them. For goodness sake, a sprite of a kid shot 66-64 in the first two rounds at Amata Spring Country Club to take a commanding lead over a field of accomplished older amateurs. He then made a gritty par on a closing par-4 he couldn’t reach with a driver and 3-wood to win by one shot with Asia’s No. 2 and 1 ranked amateurs in his wake.
What does a kid have to do for a simple “Attaboy!” from the pimento cheese gallery?
Guan’s victory is the kind of heralded triumph that should make sports fans stand up and cheer. With his considerable talent despite the obvious limitations of his size and strength, he succeeded and earned himself the most coveted invitation in golf.
“I feel very proud to be playing in the 2013 US Masters at Augusta – I know I have the game to win it and take golf in China to a new level,” Guan tweeted on Tuesday as the excitement of what he accomplished keeps lapping over the eighth-grader from Zhi Xin Middle School.
Of course we all know that Guan has little chance of competing with his idol Woods or Phil Mickelson or Rory McIlory or Bubba Watson for the green jacket next April. He can join the club with dozens of other qualified participants who will largely be at Augusta National Golf Club for the experience.
Of course that’s what we all thought about 17-year-old Beau Hossler in June’s U.S. Open, and all he did was contend deep into Sunday’s final round at the wicked Olympic Club.
Did the fact that a fellow 14-year-old native of China, Andy Zhang, shot 79-78 at Olympic make his becoming the youngest participant in the history of the U.S. Open any less of an incredible story? No, it was freaking awesome and something which we should all marvel.
The whole point of sports is to push limits. “Faster, higher, stronger” as the Olympic motto goes.
Why not younger?
Guan’s story is exactly the kind of inspiration that Augusta National and the R&A were hoping for when they co-founded the Asia-Pacific Amateur to help develop the game of golf in fledgling markets like China. People scoffed when they offered the Masters carrot believing it would become an avenue for weaker golfers to get a foot in the door of the Masters, but all Hideki Matsuyama did as winner of the last two Asian Ams was make the cut both times at Augusta.
You know who didn’t do that? Jason Day, K.J. Choi, Ryo Ishikawa, Stewart Cink, Zach Johnson, Hunter Mahan, Graeme McDowell, Retief Goosen, Vijay Singh, Padraig Harrington, Louis Oosthuizen, etc.
Whether Guan makes the cut or gets overwhelmed by a 7,435-yard course that is way too big for your average 125-pounder who hits 250-yard drives doesn’t matter. He’s going to be one of the great stories in April and drive ratings in Asia like Tiger regardless of what kind of putter he uses. And his example will only fuel more kids in China and other Asian countries to want to follow in his footsteps to the Masters.
“I’m really proud of myself and I think it really helps Chinese golf and the Chinese golfers,” Guan said. “They will maybe train even harder and get more people that know about that. So I’m very happy about that.”
Golf needs more stories like this. Unfortunately, many of the game’s leaders are in the camp for wanting fewer. The PGA Tour is killing Q-School – the most democratic qualifying avenue in all of sports and a reliable dream generator – to create a more tiered, checkpoint approach that will destroy those lightning-in-a-bottle stories that have always made the game as a whole more compelling.
Thankfully the folks at Augusta National get it. Their faith in growing the game can only reap dividends with amazing tales like this. Just look at what it’s already done to Guan’s confidence.
“I want to win the US Masters at Augusta,” he tweeted.
How can you not want the same thing? Not only because it would be a great story but it would be so much fun to watch the heads of all those point-missers explode.