Commentary

Augusta reaping what it sowed

Updated: November 4, 2012, 10:24 PM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

If all goes as planned, the azaleas will be in bloom, the dogwoods coming to life, the lush green of Augusta National in all of its glory next April.

And then there will be some sights that might take some getting used to: women wearing green jackets strolling the grounds and watching a 14-year-old amateur from China who wields a belly putter.

The club made history in August when it admitted its first two female members, Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore, after a long, sometimes contentious debate over whether the private club that has staged the Masters since 1934 would finally open its membership doors to females.

Sunday a different kind of history occurred when Guan Tianlang won the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship in Thailand, prevailing by a single stroke when he holed a 5-footer for par on the last hole at Amata Spring Country Club using a belly putter he first put in his bag in June.

Guan, from China, the youngest player in the field, recently turned 14. He will become the youngest player to compete in the Masters, taking over that distinction from Italy's Matteo Manassero (16 years old in 2010).

Weighing just 125 pounds, Guan could barely reach the 470-yard par-4 finishing hole with a 3-wood, getting up and down from off the green for the clinching par.

"I'm really proud of myself," Guan said Sunday in English during a conference call with reporters. "I think it really helps Chinese golf. They will train even harder. I'm very happy about it."

And therein lies the beauty of his victory and one of the reasons for staging this tournament in the first place.

When the event was launched in 2009 with the backing of Augusta National and the R&A, it seemed like a nice idea to establish a big amateur event in Asia. Augusta's involvement would assure first-class treatment, and the R&A has been running golf tournaments for 150 years.

But along with that came this blockbuster: The winner would receive a spot in the Masters and, along with the runner-up, a place in international final qualifying for the Open Championship.

[+] EnlargeGuan Tianlang
AP Photo/AAC/Paul LakatosChina's Guan Tianlang will add his name to a long list of amateurs when he tees it up at Augusta National in The Masters next April.

How big is that? Well, plenty of big-name, accomplished professionals have yet to qualify for the Masters. U.S. Ryder Cup captain Davis Love III, for one, is among many who have yet to receive an invitation.

But a 14-year-old middle school student is already looking for housing in Augusta, Ga. The impact it has on others has yet to be quantified, but it can only help a sport that is growing globally in stature, especially in China.

Despite China's immense population, there are few top-level golfers from the country -- now. Most observers feel it is just a matter of time before the Official World Golf Rankings are dotted with Chinese players.

One problem has been the Communist regime's take on the game. To put it nicely, the government frowns on golf, although it has allowed big-money resorts to sprout up all over the country, making it a game mostly for the wealthy. Two big tournaments were just staged there, with European stars Peter Hanson (BMW Masters) and Ian Poulter (WGC-HSBC Champions) prevailing.

Slowly the view on the game is changing. And with golf being part of the Olympics starting in 2016, there will be a push to develop players. The dangling carrot of a Masters invite for a prestigious amateur title can only help in pushing China to succeed.

Zhang Lian-wei, the first Chinese player to win on the European Tour, became the first Masters participant from China in 2004, having received a special invitation from the club.

At present, there are just two Chinese players ranked among the top 250 in the world: Wu Ashun (188) and Liang Wen-Chong (246). Earlier this year, Shanshan Feng became the first Chinese woman to win on the LPGA Tour when she won a major title at the LPGA Championship.

You have to start somewhere, however, and what better beginning could a player have than to dream of playing in the Masters?

"There remains, we believe, an untapped opportunity in Asia and other parts of the world, where amateur golf has its greatest growth potential," Augusta National chairman Billy Payne said at the time of the tournament's unveiling more than three years ago.

Over the ensuing years, Payne has become more aggressive in his desire to "grow the game." Along with the Asia-Pacific Amateur, there has been considerable assistance, such as millions of dollars, donated to junior programs, including the First Tee. Payne began an initiative whereby children under 16 would be admitted to the Masters for free with an adult.

All of that, of course, caused Payne angst when it came to the women's membership issue. He was criticized for talking about growing the game while holding back on admitting women to his very private club.

Deep down, however, the feeling here has always been that Payne wanted to see female members at Augusta National, too. He was once the head of the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games, where he sought to have golf included and played at Augusta National. It was denied because of the club's membership policies.

Now that is no longer an issue, and it makes you pause to wonder what Bobby Jones would think of all this.

The founder of the club was a great amateur himself, retiring from the game in 1930 after completing what was then the Grand Slam by winning the U.S Open and Amateur titles and British Open and Amateur titles.

He might very well have an affection for Guan. Jones tried to qualify for his first U.S. Amateur at age 14 in 1916 and finished second at age 17 in 1919. Jones would go on to win the U.S. Open and British Open a combined seven times and retired from competitive golf at age 28. He knew a little something about pressure at a young age.

Because he played his entire career as an amateur, that tradition carried on at Augusta National, which has always held places in the Masters for those yet to turn professional. In addition to the Asia-Pacific Amateur champion, the club invites every year the winner and runner-up of the U.S. Amateur, along with the winners of the U.S. Public Links, the U.S. Mid-Amateur and the British Amateur.

As Payne said in 2008, before the Asia-Pacific Amateur was even born: "The ultimate prize of a Masters invitation has inspired amateur golfers over the decades to compete at the highest level. As they have done so, and as they have become heroes to their contemporaries, they have influenced others to take up the game."

Certainly Guan will get plenty of attention next spring. For someone so young, his English is impressive, his game even more. He is no stranger to the big stage, becoming the youngest winner of the China Amateur Open last November. He also played in this year's Volvo China Open, making him the youngest to compete in a European Tour event, although he missed the cut.

In July 2011, Guan ran away to an 11-stroke win in the 11-12-year-old division of the Junior World Golf Championships in San Diego.

That is a long way from Augusta National, in both prestige and distance. But it is one amazing journey.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com

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