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Guan Tianlang, 14, gets Masters shot

11/4/2012 - Golf

A 14-year-old kid is headed to the Masters. An American woman is a lock to win Player of the Year for the first time in almost 20 years. Ian Poulter follows up his performance at the Ryder Cup with a big win in China. Phil Mickelson is ready for 2013. These events and more have been some of the defining moments in the week of golf.

1. Middle schooler to tee it up at the Masters

A 14-year-old Chinese amateur will be in the field for the 2013 Masters. That's right, 14.

Guan Tianlang earned the right to be in Augusta next spring by winning the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship on Sunday in Thailand. With a final round 1-under-par 71 at the Amata Spring Country Club in Bangkok, the former Junior World Golf champion in the 11-12 category beat Pan Cheng-Tsung by a shot.

Guan will become the youngest ever to play in The Masters. When the tournament starts on April 8, the Guangzhou, China, native will be more than 2 years younger than Matteo Manassero of Italy, who previously held the distinction when as a 16-year-old he finished as low amateur in a tie for 36th at the 2010 Masters.

"I'm so excited. I'm really happy to become the youngest player at the Masters and looking forward to going there," Guan said. "I don't know what's going to happen there, but I know I just want to do well." 

Guan can't even drive himself down Magnolia Lane. Instead of playing in the Future Masters junior tournament in Dothan, Ala., in June, he's doing the real thing in April.

As fun as it will be to watch the kid try to act like an adult on a grown man's golf course, his presence is a jarring reminder of the long-running tradition of amateurs at The Masters.

If you consider The Masters, like I do, to be the most important golf tournament in the world, you want it to have the best field in the game. You might appreciate the novelty of a teenager playing Augusta National, but you know he has no chance of winning or competing. I would rather have a field of the best pros in the world, but I respect the values of the tournament first put down by Bobby Jones. So you go on and forget that Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy have a handful of guys they know at the beginning of week have no chance of beating them.

It's not a question of whether Guan belongs at The Masters. His presence at Augusta could inspire millions of Chinese youth and adults to take up the game. The push of golf into that nation of 1.3 billion is already reaping dividends. In June, Shanshan Feng became the first Chinese national to win on the LPGA Tour at the LPGA Championship.

Augusta National has gone to great lengths to ensure the golf course can defend itself against the modern player by severely lengthening it over the past several years. The club also now has women and minorities in its membership. In its own stubborn way, Augusta National has proved that there can be a place for both tradition and change.

Since its inception in 1934 as the Augusta National Invitation Tournament, the Masters has honored amateurs, college players on their way to the professional ranks and gentlemen golfers with banker's hours.

Jones was one of 11 amateurs in that first event.

Through the years, the Alastair Mackenzie gem has been the site of some of the most famous attempts by amateurs to win a major championship. In 1956, Ken Venturi, a 24-year-old San Francisco native, took a 4-shot lead into the final round, but would lose by a shot to Jackie Burke Jr. after shooting an 80 on Sunday.

In 1954, Billy Joe Patton, a 31-year-old lumberman, came out of the obscurity of western North Carolina to nearly win the tournament. Patton had the lead in the final round until a double-bogey at the par-5 13th. Ultimately, he would fall 1 shot short of a making a playoff with Ben Hogan and Sam Snead, who would eventually get his third green jacket.

In '61, Charlie Coe, a two-time U.S. Amateur champion, finished in a tie for second with Arnold Palmer behind Gary Palmer.

Those are the signature moments for amateurs in the long, storied history of the game's first major of the year. Since both Coe and Jack Nicklaus had top-10s in that '61 Masters, an amateur hasn't finished better than a tie for 13th. That was accomplished by Ryan Moore in 2005 a year after winning the U.S. Amateur, the U.S. Amateur Public Links and the NCAA men's championship.

These days for most amateurs, an invitation to the Masters is largely a sightseeing mission, a wide-eyed journey into the mecca of golf, and a chance to board for the week in the Crow's Nest, a room reserved for them in the clubhouse. Unless you are a career amateur -- and there are few really good players of that ilk anymore -- it's usually a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to win the Silver Cup for low amateur.

For the past two years, Hideki Matsuyama had been the representative from the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship at the Masters. With a tie for 27th at Augusta in 2011, the Japanese college student was the low amateur as a 19-year-old. In 2012, he finished in a tie for 54th.

It would be easier to stomach the noncompetitive amateurs in the field if the Masters invited every PGA Tour winner from each season, regardless of whether the tournament they won awarded full FedEx Cup points or whether it was an opposite-field event, such as the True South Classic.

Is it fair for Guan to play in the 2013 Masters and for Tommy "Two Gloves" Gainey to not get the same chance, despite shooting a final-round 60 to win the McGladrey Classic? If Gainey wants to make it into the Masters, he has to be in the top 30 on the money list after next week's season-ending event at  Disney.

It's easier for the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship to maintain their relatively high number of qualifiers and club pros, respectively, because they typically have 50 percent more players in their fields.

The Masters, which is keen on keeping its field below 100, should expand its field size to accommodate more tour players by expanding its criteria for invitations. This way, it could carry on Jones' legacy of amateurism, continue its loyalty to past champions and make the tournament more inclusive.

The tournament likes late tee times on the weekends, no-split tees and a small cut.  With more players, the event could lose some of its exclusivity that makes it unique among the four majors. Yet how much could it hurt the overall aura of the event for it to add six more at-large spots for players off the PGA Tour, who do not follow under its present invite guidelines? John Huh, George McNeill, Gainey, Scott Stallings, Jonas Blixt and Ryan Moore all won events in 2012 that didn't automatically qualify  them for the Masters.

Come April, Guan will have a wonderful experience at Augusta and will have met all the great players. He will be that young boy who exalts in the joy of being around his idols. And Asia and the game will be better off because he was in the field.

By adding more spots in the field, the Masters could also inspire the rank-and-file tour player who's having a far tougher time of getting down Magnolia Lane than a child prodigy with no driver's license.


2. Is Poulter's second WGC win a sign of things to come?

Ian Poulter was the best player at the Ryder Cup matches at Medinah. There wasn't a golfer from either team that could match his emotion, ambition and leadership.

It's not a surprise then that he would carry over that momentum through the end of the year.

On Sunday, the 36-year-old Englishman shot a 7-under par 65 to overcome a 4-stroke deficit at the beginning of the day to win the WGC-HSBC Champions in China by 2 shots over four players, including Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson. The victory at the Mission Hills in Shenzhen marked Poulter's 12th European Tour title and second WGC win after taking the 2010 Accenture Match Play.

Poulter exudes confidence down to his finely tailored and sometimes flamboyant clothes, to his frank utterances by his golf game and personal life.

"Don't get me wrong," Poulter said in 2008, "I really respect every professional golfer, but I know I haven't played to my full potential and when that happens, it will be just me and Tiger."

Might now be time that he's reached that full potential? In 2012, he finally performed well in the majors, posting three top-10s, including a tie for third at the PGA Championship. Prior to this year, he had just three top-10s in his previous 36 appearances in majors.

In 2011, Poulter was by his own admission distracted by a home renovation project that led to just one top-10 on the PGA Tour. Now that the renovations are done to his mansion at Lake Nona in Orlando, Poulter can fully focus on golf.

After his success this year in the majors and perhaps a career-defining moment at the Ryder Cup, no one in the game is probably more primed than him to challenge Rory McIlroy's dominance. His comments four years ago about it one day just being him and Tiger might not have the same currency as it once did, but the spirit of the remarks still holds true.

The time is now for him to fulfill that mission.


3. Lewis stakes claim to top LPGA honors

After years of looking for a bona-fide American superstar, the LPGA Tour might have finally found a sustainable product in Stacy Lewis, who with her win on Sunday in the Mizuno Classic virtually locked up the Rolex Player of the Year award. It was Lewis' fourth win in a year that included top-10s in all four majors.

The 27-year-old former Arkansas Razorback will likely be the first American woman to win the LPGA's highest honor since Beth Daniel took it in 1994.

Since then Annika Sorenstam, Karrie Webb, Lorena Ochoa and most recently Yani Tseng have dominated the award.

It wasn't long ago that most were betting on the likes of Michelle Wie, Paula Creamer, Cristie Kerr and Brittany Lincicome to vault American women back to the top of the game. In their own way, each of these women has made major impacts on their sport, but they aren't dominant players. None them have done what Nancy Lopez was able to do for women's golf in the U.S. in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Lewis' route to the top of the game after four All-American years at Arkansas is unconventional by today's standards when many of her peers turned pro as teenagers. The Houston native is mature beyond her years and seems very comfortable in the spotlight. In her first professional victory last year at the Kraft Nabisco Championship, she beat world No. 1 Tseng by 3 shots.

In 2013, Tseng, Inbee Park, Jiyai Shin, Suzann Pettersen and host of well-heeled contenders will have a tough time beating Lewis. Another year of four wins and a major championship could signal that she's ready to be the best in the game for many years to come and hopefully the kind of force to draw comparisons to Lopez and some of the other great American players who built the LPGA Tour.


4. Mickelson rises to occasion in China

Phil Mickelson hasn't won a golf tournament since February at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, but over the past three months few have played better than the 40-time PGA Tour winner. In his past four starts, he has had a T-4-, T-2, T-15, and another T-2 this Sunday in China at the WGC-HSBC Champions.

In the middle of all that excellent play, the 42-year-old lefty had one of his best Ryder Cup performances at Medinah.

It has always been hard to know Mickelson's focus. The four-time major champion has periods when he looks fully engaged with golf. Then at other times he can play like someone simply going through the motions. For a couple of months this summer, it looked like he was mentally checked out from the game. But then he made a resurgence during the FedEx Cup playoffs.

Lately, we've heard much about his involvement in the group that recently purchased his hometown San Diego Padres for a reported $800 million. But that shouldn't be too much of a distraction. In China, Mickelson had four rounds in the 60s, falling just 2 shots short of Ian Poulter's winning 21-under par total.

Mickelson's game might not show up again until a few weeks leading into the Masters, but you can count on him to be ready to win his fourth green jacket. Based on the way he's finished this season, he looks like a formidable contender in all the majors in 2013.


5. Lehman continues to show his mettle

Tom Lehman didn't have a Hall of Fame career on the PGA Tour. He won just five times, including the 1996 Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. When his career is done, he'll probably be best known for holding the 54-hole lead in three straight U.S. Opens from 1995-97, but failing to win any of them.

Yet the 53-year-old Minnesota native was one of the great competitors in the 1990s, one of the fiercest grinders in the game. As a Champions Tour player, he's on his way to a Hall of Fame career for the senior circuit, if such a thing existed.

On Sunday, he took his second straight Charles Schwab Cup at Desert Mountain with a 6-shot win over Jay Haas. It was Lehman's seventh Champions Tour victory.

Lehman has already surpassed his regular tour win total. He has become dominate on the senior tour in a way that wasn't possible for him when he was just struggling to keep his PGA Tour card through the late 1980s and early 1990s. The Champions Tour was created for second acts. And Lehman is putting on an award-winning performance.

It's one that's not likely to result in an invitation to the World Golf Hall of Fame, but for a few years he was as steady as anyone who has ever made the journey to St. Augustine.