|ESPN.com: Golf||[Print without images]|
At the Masters, Guan Tianlang played the first two rounds with Ben Crenshaw, a 61-year-old two-time Masters champion in the twilight of his career at Augusta.
They were an interesting pair: a Hall of Fame Texan with a gentle demeanor and perfect putting stroke and an excited 14-year-old Chinese eighth-grader competing in his first Masters.
Crenshaw gave Guan the kind of affirming and paternal encouragement that you would expect from a man with his exquisite grasp of the history and traditions of the game.
The boy had a future in golf. He handled himself like a pro, even if he was a little deliberate with his pace of play. This was the word that came down from Gentle Ben.
By Sunday, everybody had started to believe after the kid made the cut and finished low amateur. Guan is in the field this week at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans on a sponsor's exemption. For now, the future is on hold for the present. He's back in the spotlight with more invitations certain to come, especially if he plays well on Pete Dye's TPC Louisiana.
"I want to enjoy the week like in the Masters and hopefully, make the cut," he said on Tuesday. "If not, it's still a great experience. I hope to play good scores out there."
How important is it that Guan has success on this level as a 14-year-old?
Maybe that's the wrong question. Perhaps the focus should be on the lessons he can gather from the experience. Realistically, he's not going to win the tournament and making the cut, while a great feat for someone of his age, doesn't necessarily mean he's going to be the next Rory McIlroy.
It's not that all athletes aren't always learning about themselves through their various sports, regardless of whether they are a 15-year veteran or a rookie. But Guan is in a particularly crucial developmental stage of his young career.
Right now the PGA Tour is an exercise for him to assess his strengths and weaknesses against the best players in the world. Most often golfers of his age get to mature on the junior circuits, but Guan will partly have those learning pains in front of the world.
So what are some of the lessons he might take from this great honor and privilege of playing with the very best?
Guan made international headlines during the second round of the Masters by getting a one-shot penalty for slow play, which is a big problem at all levels of the game. While he has to make faster decisions on the course, he also has to be careful not to rush and abandon his system for hitting shots or get rattled with being labeled a slow player.
John Wooden's "be quick but don't hurry" mantra might be the appropriate way for him to deal with this bad habit.
Still, I've always thought it oversimplified the situation when someone commands a player to just speed up or slow down; as if one's natural way of doing things didn't impact how they processed information on the golf course.
At the Players last May when Kevin Na tested our nerves with his peculiar way of starting and stopping in his pre-shot routine, Matt Kuchar, who would eventually win the event, made the salient point that on the PGA Tour one needed to also learn how to play slow. It comes with the territory in five-and-a-half-hour rounds. You may as well acquire some patience, Kuchar seemed to say, because you can't play through any groups.
During that second round at the Masters, Guan was warned at least three times before he was given the penalty. On tour, when players are first told that they are out of position they generally don't have to be reminded again.
"I just think my routine is not too bad," said Guan, who tees off on Thursday at 1:40 p.m. CT with Justin Bolli and Henrik Norlander. "Probably have to make a decision quicker on windy days. I'll pay attention a little bit to it and probably speed up a little bit."
It's good that he's aware, but it's just as important that he understand that the tour is full of slow players who have skillfully managed to stay within the rules. The more he plays the more he will find a happy equilibrium between fast and slow that's probably a better long-term solution for his game.
Second, I'd like to see Guan really watch the short games of these players and pick up anything he can about strategies for a myriad of shots around the green.
The difference between the pros and the guys who languish on the mini tours is putting, chipping and shots inside 100 yards. Tour players get up and down from everywhere.
Crenshaw raved about Guan's short game and good hands, but the kid admits that he needs more work in this area. In the long run, his mastery of this part of his game could make up for what he lacks in power off the tee.
Third, a week in New Orleans should ultimately teach Guan that he's nowhere near being ready to compete regularly on the PGA Tour, and that he should be very careful about accepting future invitations to tour events. He should play only when he's ready to seriously compete.
Furthermore at 14, there is no hurry for him to master any of these lessons. He doesn't have to figure it all out at once. Over time, he will pick up on how the pros pace themselves on the course, how they routinely look like magicians around the greens and when to not play, among other things.
But for now, he's one of the luckiest 14-year-old boys in the world.