They walked down the 11th fairway stride for stride on Tuesday afternoon, a 63-year-old legend and his boy-genius playing partner. They shared a few words, kept moving forward, and the boy prepared to do something that Tom Watson had never seen. Something that’s never been done at the venerable Augusta National Golf Club.
Tianlang Guan is 14 years old. He likes basketball. He goes to school. And at 5 feet 9 and a wiry 140 pounds, he could pass for a year or two younger. But here he was, reaching Amen Corner with Watson in a practice round on Tuesday, preparing to become the youngest golfer in the history of the Masters, when the event begins Thursday morning.
As Watson and Guan reached the tee box at the par-3 12th hole, Watson had the honors. He teed up and drilled a beautiful shot that sailed over Rae’s Creek and landed in the back left-corner of the green, some 25 feet from the hole. With a crowded and buzzing gallery looking on, Guan was next. He stepped up, took aim and stuck his shot in the same part of the green — nearly 10 feet inside Watson’s.
“He’s 14 years old,” Watson would say later, as if the absurdity of that fact needed to be mentioned again.
The story of the Masters on Tuesday — at least, any story that didn’t include one Eldrick “Tiger” Woods — was about an eighth-grader from China who was born after Woods won his first Masters in 1997. On Monday, Guan played a practice round with Woods — one of his idols — and Tuesday, it was time for a loop with Watson, Kansas City’s golfing legend who will make his 40th Masters appearance this week.
There are plenty of ways to put this golfing odd couple in perspective. For one, Watson was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1988, 10 years before Guan was born. But on Tuesday afternoon, Woods was left with the most simple and perhaps ridiculous fact of all.
“I mean, this kid can’t play high school golf,” Woods said. “He’s not in high school yet.”
High school golf is not a requirement for the Masters. But winning the Pacific Amateur Championship will land you a spot in the field. And Guan accomplished that feat last November, blistering the field with a 15-under for the title.
So now Guan is here. Playing with legends. Listening to Watson. Staying in the Crow’s Nest above the Augusta National Golf Club clubhouse, the traditional residence for the amateurs in the event.
On Thursday, he’ll play in a group with 61-year-old Ben Crenshaw, a two-time Masters winner, and 19-year-old Matteo Mannasero, who was 16 years old in 2010 when he set the mark for the youngest competitor at the Masters.
“I’m not pushing myself too hard to score a number,” Guan said Tuesday. “The first round is pretty special. And first, I want (to) enjoy it and have fun.”
When Watson was 14 years old, he was competing in (and winning) the Kansas City Men’s Match Play event. That was 1964. And while he would play a practice round with Arnold Palmer just a year later, he still likes to say that match-play victory was a seminal moment in his early days.
“It gave me the dream of some day being out here against the pros,” Watson said.
Nearly 50 years later, Watson’s Masters days are likely numbered. He’s missed the cut in nine of his last 10 appearances at Augusta (He finished 19th in 2010). And if he makes the cut this week, he’ll become the oldest player in Masters history to stick around for the whole weekend.
The golfing world has learned to not count out an aging Watson. But as Watson and Guan set off on the front nine Tuesday, Woods was making his case for Guan’s chances during the first two days of the tournament.
“He’s so consistent,” Woods said. “He was hitting a lot of hybrids into the holes yesterday, hitting them spot on, right on the numbers. He knew what he was doing. He knew the spots he had to land the ball, and to be able to pull it off.
“Good scouting, good prep, but also even better execution,” Woods added. “For a 14-year-old to be able to come out here and handle himself the way he’s done is just unbelievable.”
The praise — and wonder — was repeated from a collection of contenders on Tuesday. Rory McIlroy, himself a youthful 23, said he was talking about Guan over breakfast with his father.
“I mean, he could potentially play, I don’t know, 60 Masters,” McIlroy said. “What’s this, the 77th? So he could actually double that nearly.”
Late Tuesday afternoon, as the practice-round crowds were gathering on a warm spring day, Watson and Guan took part in another Masters tradition. After each took tee shots at the Par-3 16th, they laid back and attempted to skip a ball across the creek that protects the front edge of the 16th green. First came Watson, who skipped his shot across on the first try, landing it safely on the green. Next came Guan, who dunked his attempt in the water on the first try.
So perhaps the kid has a few things to learn.
“He’s got a ‘serious’ attitude,” Watson said, “which is good. I like the attitude.”
When the round was over, the legend and the boy parted ways. Watson headed back to his place among the former champions. And Guan back to the Crow’s Nest. If he needed something to take his mind off the next few days, he’d brought along a few homework assignments just in case.
“I think it’s going to be a little pressure to me,” Guan said. “But I’m not going to push myself too hard, and I’m going to enjoy the game.”