Chonburi, Thailand – All around the world, young golfers stand over putts on courses and practice greens and imagine they mean something significant if they drop. A PGA Tour title, perhaps. Or entry into a major championship. They are the fantasies of aspiring players.
For 14-year-old Tianlang Guan of Guanzhou, China, the five-footer he contemplated on the 18th green at the Amata Spring Country Club in Chonburi, Thailand on Sunday November 4th was more than just a finisher for another Sunday afternoon golf game. Making it would mean a one-stroke win in the fourth annual Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship for the slight schoolboy with a smooth swing and a penchant for loud plaid pants. Draining it would bring an invitation to the 2013 Masters as well as a spot in the International Final Qualifying for the Open Championship.
The youngest player in field, Guan checked out his line from several angles and wiped the sweat from his face and hands with a towel. Then, he calmly stroked his ball into the hole, his sporting dream suddenly a golfing reality. He was going to the Masters. And maybe even to Muirfield for the Open Championship.
It was quite a triumph for Guan, who was only ranked 490th in the World Amateur Golf Ranking coming into the championship. And quite a week for the young man who had just turned 14 the week before and rarely drives the ball beyond 250 yards. He opened with a seven-under par 65 on the verdant Amata Spring course, located outside the vibrant, traffic-choked city of Bangkok, where saffron-robed monks amble the streets alongside bearded backpackers, and gilded-roofed Buddhist wats rise amidst towering skyscrapers. His 64 the following day was the round of the tournament and included seven birdies, one eagle, two chip-ins and only 22 putts. Yet Guan, an only child who looks young enough to get carded for a Disney movie, maintained perspective.
His even-par 72 on Saturday hinted at the presence of at least some nerves, even as he calmly carried an umbrella between shots to shade himself from the scorching sun. And who could blame the boy for feeling the least bit tense, given the stakes. But this was by no means his first golfing rodeo. In 2011, Guan won the age 11-12 division of the Junior World Golf Championship by 11 strokes and captured the China Amateur Open. He also played for home country in the World Amateur Team Championship earlier this year. And in April, he became the youngest player ever to compete in a European PGA Tour event when he qualified for the China Open. So, when it came time to play his third round at Amata Spring, he was able to keep an even emotional keel – and also keep the lead he had enjoyed since the end of the very first round.
On Sunday, Guan maintained his cool as well as his control of the tournament, even as a number of players started going low. Chief among those suddenly threatening were Cheng-Tsung Pan, the Taiwanese native and University of Washington sophomore who reeled off three straight birdies on the front side, and then four in a row on the back. And it appeared at times that Guan might falter. But he saved bogey on 16, and then par on the treacherous par-three 17th with its imposing island green. Needing a par on 18 to win, he hit driver off the tee and 3-wood to the front-right fringe. Guan nearly jarred his chip and then smoothly stroked his par putt into the hole. “I just imagined it going in,” he said afterwards, and when it did, he pumped his fist ever so slightly as his excitable doctor father scurried around the green, thanking friends in the gallery before racing down to congratulate his son.
Televised in more than 150 countries, the Asia-Pacific Amateur is the most watched amateur tournament in golf. The annual event, which was founded by the Masters and The R&A, is also one of the most exotic, with a field that includes players from the 36 member nations of the Asia-Pacific Golf Confederation. Then, there is the golf, which pits the best amateurs in the Australasia region against each other. That means the competition is fierce, and the quality of play high. So is the quality of the golfers themselves, as evidence by the performance of two-time Asia-Pacific Amateur winner Hideki Matsuyama, who made the cuts in the past two Masters and was Low Amateur in 2011, and the battle that ensued for this year’s title. Guan bested the very formidable Pan by a shot, the talented Australian golfer Oliver Goss by 3 and the steady Matsuyama by four strokes.
Heretofore, an Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship was only a dream to Guan. So was an invite to play in the Masters, and a chance to qualify for the Open at Muirfield. Now, they are all reality