How many 14-year-olds do you know who warm up for a star turn with Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy by defending the most coveted amateur title in Asia, in hopes of re-punching his ticket to The Masters? That is the quite extraordinary story of Guan Tianlang, who, as we speak, is teeing it up at the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship (AAC) in China’s Shandong province, at Nanshan International GC. The AAC runs Thursday to Sunday — winning it means a Masters invite (Augusta National GC is a tournament organizer) but also a final qualifying slot for the 2014 British Open. So soon as his AAC has concluded, Mr. Guan (surnames first for the Chinese, of course), flies south to Hainan island, where he will participate in a morning Skills Challenge with Messrs. Woods and McIlroy, at Mission Hills Resort Haikou (that afternoon, the two pros will contest The Match at Mission Hills to be held over the resort’s Blackstone Course). Guan, of course, made Masters history earlier this year — competing as a 14 year old and making the cut on golf’s biggest stage. I recently had the chance to sit down with Guan to discuss the state of his game, his travels, his history with Tiger and Rory, and his relationship to Mission Hills, where he’s been a fixture at junior tournaments since 2008 (he’s a native of nearby Guangzhou). Oh, and for the record, all this talk about being a precocious 14 year old goes away this week. Guan turns 15 on Friday, Oct. 25.
Q: You are quite famous, internationally, following your performance at the Masters in April 2013. Tell us what you’ve been doing since that time.
Guan Tianlang: The Masters did make me better known than before. I played several PGA Tour events after The Masters, including the Zurich Classic, HP Byron Nelson Championship, The Memorial, and FedEx St. Jude Classic — before taking the whole summer off for fitness training and catching up with school work. I played one Japan Tour event, the Vana H Cup KBC Augusta, after coming back from the States. Now I am going to school as a normal student and getting ready for the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship in late October.
Q: The slow-play penalty you incurred during the second round at The Masters gained a lot of attention, as well. How do you view that episode now? Do you play faster, or do you think the penalty was perhaps unfairly applied?
GTL: As I said back then, I respect the decision and I accept it completely. It was a tough day. The weather was bad and it took more time to make the right decision, and you know, it’s The Masters! I have a good routine and I haven’t changed much because of the penalty. But yes, I do pay more attention to my pace and I think I have been doing well on that part. Overall, it was a very valuable experience.
Q: Describe your history with Mission Hills. You have worked on your game there? Competed in tournaments here?
GTL: I have participated in more than 10 junior golf tournaments hosted by Mission Hills, since I was seven. And I won several championships there. The courses are beautiful and challenging. Actually the second time I met Tiger Woods was at Mission Hills Shenzhen. A great memory.
Q: There are many courses at Mission Hills — 12 in Shenzhen and 10 on Hainan Island. Which is your favorite course?
GTL: My favorite one must be the Mission Hills Norman Course. But I haven’t been to the Haikou Mission Hills. I hear it is amazing and can’t wait to play there!
Q: You will appear at a junior clinic and skills challenge prior to Tiger Woods’ and Rory McIlroy’s Match at Mission Hills on Oct. 28. You already have a history with both players.
GTL: Yes, I’ve met both of them before. I met Tiger at the HSBC Championship when I was 12, and we played a par-3 hole together. Met him the second time at Mission Hills Shenzhen and received a trophy from him. And, of course, I got to play with him for 9 holes at Augusta National on the Tuesday of the Masters; it was a dream come true, as everyone knows he is my idol. I haven’t played with Rory before but we had a nice chat at the Masters. He was very supportive and said he wasn’t as good as me when he was 14. He is humble and a very sweet guy. A great player as well!
Q: Have you attended similar junior clinics as a spectator? If so, what did you take away from the experience?
GTL: I have attended some junior golf clinics, when I was younger. The one hosted by Mission Hills with Tiger Wood was one. I can’t say how much in terms of golfing skills I have learned from the instructor, but I shall say the whole experience did inspire and motivate me to practice harder and become a better golfer.
Q: Was Tiger Woods always role model for you? Are you old enough to have the same thoughts about Rory McIlroy?
GTL: Tiger Wood has always been my idol. I believe he is the role model as a golfer for many, many people out there. Look at him: He won 5 PGA Tour events in one year and he is now the world No.1. He is the greatest player of his time and perhaps will become the greatest of all time soon. Rory is such a mature and great player. I can see how much more I need work on myself — to grow into a player like him. Both of them are the players I look up to. I’m very excited to get the chance to challenge them.
Q: What advice did Tiger give you during that Masters practice round — anything that helped you during the tournament, or with your golf going forward?
GL: Yes, it was a great experience and probably the most nervous 9 holes in my life. He is my idol, after all. We did chat a bit during the practice round and also off the course. Lots of advice. But the one piece, as other great golfers also offered to me, is enjoying your game and embracing your experience at The Masters. It was my first Masters journey, and I hope there will be many more coming.
Q: You turn 15 on Oct. 25, just before The Match at Mission Hills. You remain a young man, but do you feel as if golf is more popular today, in China, than it was five years ago? If so, how can you tell?
GTL: I believe so, absolutely. First of all, you can see more and more media are paying attention to the sport. Second, more and more juniors start to pick up the game, which makes the future of golf in China very promising. The golf community in China is expanding with its addition to the 2016 Olympic. Golf will become more and more popular here for sure. It is a great sport, why not?
Q: When will American golf fans see you again? Does your tournament schedule bring you to North America in 2014?
GTL: I hope everyone who supports me will watch me and root for me when I play other events outside the U.S., such as Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship. Augusta National is an organizer [winning this event last year earned Guan his Masters place in 2013] and it is the best amateur event in the region. I am going back to defend my title and I hope they will be watching. I haven’t planned any tournaments in North American next year. Hopefully I will win my ticket back to 2014 Masters.