(Eds: With AP Photos.)By DOUG FERGUSONAP Golf Writer
There was a time when a 14-year-old on the PGA Tour would be considered big news.
It’s starting to feel like old news.
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Guan Tianlang tees it up Thursday at the Zurich Classic in New Orleans, which must feel like a significant step down from where he was two weeks ago. He played practice rounds at Augusta National with Tom Watson and Tiger Woods. He played in the Masters alongside Ben Crenshaw. He was in Butler Cabin when Adam Scott first slipped on the green jacket. Guan was the low amateur.
The emphasis should be on the Chinese teen’s performance – the youngest to play 72 holes in a major, nothing worse than a bogey all week, no three-putts on some of the fastest, most frightening greens in golf – and not on his birth certificate.
Age is just a number.
Teenagers have been dotting the professional golf landscape for the last decade.
Despite a one-shot penalty for slow play on the 17th hole of his second round, Guan still made the cut against a 93-man field at the Masters. Remember, it was only nine years ago when another 14-year-old – Michelle Wie – shot 68 and missed by one shot making the cut against a 143-man (and one girl) field at the Sony Open.
Morgan Pressel was 13 when she played in the 2001 U.S. Women’s Open at Pine Needles, a record that was broken six years later by Alexis Thompson, who was 12. Thompson went on to win an LPGA Tour event when she was 16, a record that was broken last year by 15-year-old Lydia Ko in the Canadian Women’s Open.
Ryo Ishikawa was 15 when he won the Munsingwear Open KSB Cup on the Japan Golf Tour, making him the youngest player to win on one of the six major golf tours.
That record still stands.
Guan has no illusions of winning the Zurich Classic. He spent some three weeks at Augusta National getting ready for the Masters and its 7,435-yard course. Next up is the TPC Louisiana, which is 7,341 yards and doesn’t typically play as fast. Making the cut won’t be as easy as it was at the Masters, against a 156-man field with no 10-shot rule.
That’s not the only difference, of course.
”The Masters has got a lot of people there,” Guan said Tuesday. ”So I just want to play my best this week.”
Is there room for an eight-grader in professional golf? Sure, as long as it’s a cameo appearance.
Zurich was among the sponsors of the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship, which Guan won wire-to-wire last year to earn an exemption into the Masters. Guan also has a connection to the area. He practiced at Lakewood Golf Club last year when he tried to qualify for the U.S. Open. He failed to make it. The youngest at Olympic Club last summer was another 14-year-old from China, Andy Zhang.
Guan led a junior golf clinic at Lakewood on Saturday while getting ready for his next PGA Tour event. Still to be determined is how much longer Guan stays in America and whether he will try to qualify for the U.S. Open.
The danger is trying to do too much too soon, though Guan appears to be playing golf for all the right reasons – fun.
That was his goal at the Masters, to make it an enjoyable week no matter what scores he put on his card. And he had a blast, along with getting in all four rounds. His father said at the Masters that Guan was in no hurry to turn pro because ”amateurs have fun.”
That appears to be the theme in the Big Easy.
”I want to enjoy the week, like in the Masters, and hopefully make the cut,” he said. ”If not, it’s still a great experience. I hope to play good scores out there.”
There are pitfalls to starting too early and facing overwhelming competition. Wie spent her early teens trying to compete against the men, and she showed some promise. She reached the quarterfinals of the men’s U.S. Amateur Public Links, and she was in the hunt for a spot in a major on the back nine of U.S. Open qualifying. But she was at her best when she was still in high school.
Ty Tryon made it through all three stages of PGA Tour qualifying in 2001 at age 17, and his career quickly fell apart.
Times are changing, though. Kids are more prone to handle the pressure of the big leagues. Pressel nearly won the U.S. Women’s Open when she was 17, and she was still 18 when she won the Kraft Nabisco Championship. Ishikawa, struggling in his first full year on the PGA Tour, has won 10 times in Japan, one of those with a 58 in the final round.
Perhaps it was only appropriate that Guan played the opening two rounds at Augusta with Matteo Manassero, who previously held the record as the youngest to play all four rounds in a major at 16 in the 2009 British Open. Manassero won twice on the European Tour before he turned 18.
Guan already is famous for his remarkable play at the Masters.
Liang Wenchong, who played the Masters in 2008 and tied for eighth in the 2010 PGA Championship, wrote on Guan’s Weibo post after he made the cut at Augusta, ”Your future, the future of Chinese golf, the world’s No. 1, everything is possible.”
But he’s only 14. Who’s to say he will even be the best from China when he turns pro?
Whatever happens this week in New Orleans, the attention will shift across the Pacific Ocean next week to the China Open, where the field includes 12-year-old Ye Wocheng. Last month, Ye became the youngest player to qualify for a European Tour event.
His reaction to such an achievement says a lot about this new age of golf when he said, ”I’ve dreamed of this since I was a boy.”