AUGUSTA — When most people talk about what it would be like to play in the Masters, the conversation will predictably shift to the nerves that would be present to tee it up on one of the most hallowed courses in golf.
In his first competitive round at Augusta National, nerves didn’t seem to be much of an issue for 14-year-old Chinese golfer Tianlang Guan on Thursday. Guan carded a 1-over 73 that included four birdies, five bogeys and nothing worse than that, and he said that, after his opening tee shot, he didn’t feel nervous at all. The round made him low amateur and in a tie for 46th place after the opening round.
“Not today,” he said. “I think I got enough things ready for today, and I just feel comfortable, relaxed this morning. So, it’s good.”
Grouped with two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw and 19-year-old Italian Matteo Manassero, Guan was the only member of his group to hit the first fairway. After hitting his second shot over the green, Guan carded an opening bogey but went on to hit the first three fairways.
He got another chance to display his mettle on the third green. After hitting a driver to wedge distance on the 350-yard par 4, Guan put his second shot close to the pin and was standing over a birdie try in only his third hole at Augusta.
While he was sizing up the putt, Henrik Stenson accidentally drove through the green. Even though many golfers would’ve had their focus shaken by the gaffe, Guan proceeded to sink the putt and move back to even-par.
Crenshaw said he never detected any signs that Guan had lost his cool during the round.
“Certaintly didn’t seem like it. Very impressive,” Crenshaw said. “He stuck right to his plan the whole day. Didn’t get rattled, really wonderful to see.”
In all, Guan hit nine of 14 fairways in the round, including another stretch of three in a row from hole No. 8 to hole No. 10. He capitalized on great position on No. 10 to get close and sink his second birdie putt of the day, which got him back to 1-over after bogeys on Nos. 7 and 9.
Guan put his second shot on the tenth hole among his highlights from the day, along with a chip on the par 3 sixth hole from a dangerous lie behind the green that helped save par.
“I think I had a couple good shots, like first tee shot, the chip on the sixth and approach shot on the 10th, and last putt,” he said.
Hole No. 11 gave Guan another test. After hitting his tee shot right of the fairway, Guan hit his second into the water left of the green. He took his drop and then pitched the ball in close to set up an impressive bogey.
Crenshaw had the highest praise for Guan’s short game, a skillset his parents said was developed without a coach.
“It’s beautiful,” Crenshaw said. “Soft hands and the correct method and the fundamentals are there for hitting those shots. But lots of confidence in those shots.”
Guan finished his time in Amen Corner with a textbook layup to a converted birdie putt on No. 13 and, after bogeying No. 14, rolled out three straight pars in the high-profile stretch from hole 15 to hole 17.
He saved the best for last, though. With the usual mounting crowd at No. 18, Guan put his drive in the middle of the fairway and left his tee shot on the fringe on the green. He hit eight greens in regulation in Thursday’s round, with three more left within inches of the dance floor.
Unlike the other two near-misses, Guan didn’t need to get on the green to get his ball in the cup on the finishing hole. He drained the putt from 15 feet away, which earned a roar from the crowd and applause from Crenshaw, just another sign of the much-appreciated support the former champ gave Guan throughout the day.
“I didn’t see it, but Ben is a great person, and I enjoyed playing with him so far,” Guan said. “Hopefully we can have some fun tomorrow.”
Crenshaw wasn’t the only one impressed with the youngest participant in Masters history. Dave Lupp of Buffalo, N.Y., was watching along the 18th fairway and called Guan’s effort on Thursday “pretty amazing,” particularly from a golfer so young his mother still packs his snacks for competitive rounds.
“At 14 years old, he must be pretty gifted,” Lupp said.
Aiken resident Bobby Jones, who is 13 years old, said that he plays baseball right now, but watching a young man not much older than he is made him think about getting more into golf.
“It’s just ridiculous,” Bobby said, noting that Guan has already won a significant tournament, the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship, at such a young age. “I would love to be in his position.”
As for Guan, he described playing in the Masters as a “dream come true,” but he wasn’t settling for just one good round. While he recognized that his time likely hasn’t come to compete for a green jacket, the teenager said he was going to be just as focused for a quality showing today.
“I think I will do pretty much the same way,” he said. “I will be relaxed, try to relax and focus on my game. Hopefully, I can hit a couple good shots, and I will see how things go.”
Jeremy Timmerman has a journalism degree from Mercer University and has been at the Aiken Standard since June 2010.