Easing the learning curve

Guan Tianlang benefits from Nick Faldo's counsel as the Chinese teen prepares to become the youngest player on Augusta's storied fairways

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 24 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 24 March, 2013, 5:20am

It's only when Guan Tianlang sits down that his tender years become apparent and you begin to question whether the enormity of the situation that is upon him has well and truly sunk in.

Outside the conference room at the Mission Hills complex in Dongguan, a collection of the region's brightest junior talents have gathered in preparation for the Faldo Series Asia Grand Final. Youth, in fact, has been in abundance and you can forget for a moment just how young some of these golfers are.

But now, separated from the pack, Guan looks exactly like a 14-year-old - slightly distracted, slightly nervous even as he moves in his seat and casts his gaze around the room.

And you can put that down partly to the fact he's about to be interviewed and partly to the fact that sitting there beside him is Sir Nick Faldo, at 55 a man who has seen and done all the things that fill every young golfer's dreams.

What the world knows about Faldo is that he is a six-time major championship winner with three of those victories coming at the hallowed grounds of the Augusta National in Georgia. What we know about Guan is that when this year's edition of the US Masters kicks off around that course on April 11, the Chinese starlet will be the event's youngest-ever player, having qualified with a victory at last year's Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship in Thailand.

And so we are gathered to witness what becomes, in turn, part interview, part advice session between two golfers sitting inches apart but also at the very ends of the golfing universe.

"The Masters was the tournament I watched in 1971 and it inspired me literally the next day to say I want to try golf," begins Faldo. "So what I think is the best bit of what the Masters Foundation has done with the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship is that, rather than it being just a dream - like it was for me, and it is a dream enough just go to the Masters, to get a ticket, for hundreds of thousands of golfers - what they have created is now fulfilling that dream. Young players know if they can go and win that tournament, they get a berth at the Masters. That's unbelievable."

Attention now turns to Guan, who reveals he is to leave the next day for the United States as his preparation for the event begins.

"I will go to Augusta a day or two after arriving," he says. "And I hope to play two or three times a week before the Masters begins. On the Tuesday before the event I will play a practice round with Mr Tom Watson and if I had my choice I'd get to play with Tiger Woods once the event starts.

"I watch the Masters every year and I am very lucky to have Mr Nick Faldo here as a three-time Masters champion. I can ask him questions and I think he will give me great answers."

What Faldo says to him first is that getting to Augusta early is a wise move.

"I remember arriving and seeing signs that said, 'Don't walk on the grass' and I thought, 'This is going to be tricky'," laughs Faldo. "It just scares you. The aura is just too much, going down Magnolia Lane. Back in 1979 at my first time it was a true invitation. I finished second in our Order of Merit one year and didn't get an invite. The older boys scare you, saying don't do this, don't do that. I was way too much in awe of it."

The first time Faldo went around Augusta he finished 40th. Lessons learned, he would return for famous victories in 1989, 1990 and 1996.

"So I think that's the best thing you can do - get in early," he continues. "You'll get used to the layout, where the practice facility is, the clubhouse. I suggest the first round or two, just go and enjoy it. Don't even think about trying to make a score on a hole. Just go and play, take in the whole aura of it and then maybe over the next few days start thinking about how you play the golf course. I wouldn't even count any numbers. Just take it in first and then concentrate on how to play the golf course."

It's not the first time that Faldo and Guan have met. At 13, Guan was the inaugural winner at the Faldo Series Asia in 2012 and they managed then to play a few holes together. And today they quickly get down to setting up a round at the Masters' traditional par-three contest (a special nine-hole course, all par-three holes) the day before the 2013 edition of the main event begins.

"The fifth major for me now is the par-three," says Faldo. "That's all I am gearing up for. I've hit three wedges since the middle of December, for TV. So we'll play the par-three and we can talk all you want. I can tell you what to plan for, what to take in and a couple of secrets, where the putts break. There are things about that golf course that are pretty special."

One of those things is its length. At 7,435 yards in total, the course will be way, way longer than Guan is used to and for someone who averages around 250 yards from the tee - compared to, say, last year's winner Bubba Watson who regularly reaches past 310 yards - it promises some challenges, to say the least.

And then there is the attention. Not a club known for an eagerness to adapt to change, many have wondered how Augusta's members are really feeling about the fact that someone so young will be playing their course, while commentators in the US have been raising their eyebrows ever since he qualified back in November. But there is little Guan can do, he says, other than work on his game and on his body.

"After the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship I did some physical training," says Guan. "Nothing too hard but I played better and hit it further so I think I did a good job with it."

In becoming the youngest player at the Masters - he will be 14 years, five months and 17 days old when he steps up on his first tee - Guan lifts the record from the hands of the Italian phenom Matteo Manassero, who was 16 when he played the Masters in 2010. As fans at the Hong Kong Open can attest, Manassero has moved seamlessly into the professional ranks - he finished second here in 2010 and at 19 has already collected three pro titles.

Guan says thoughts of a pro career are still far from his mind and when Guan looks to Faldo for advice about how he should start planning his career, the Englishman says there should be no rushing and that time, most definitely, is on his side.

"There no rush," he says. "I promise you there is no rush. Just go and win everything. When you are bored with winning everything as an amateur, then think about turning pro. I think that is the best advice I could give you.

"When I was an amateur I didn't play any professional events and that's what I feel I really missed out on because I would have loved to have played a pro event just to have gauged myself, to see where I was at in my career," continues Faldo.

"It would have also given me the chance to play and to be the leading amateur is a really cool achievement. If you beat the American guys and become the leading amateur - and you'd probably have to shoot a couple under par - that would be a great achievement in itself."

With countryman Wu Ashun qualifying for this year's Open Championship, big things are expected from the generation of Chinese golfers now starting to make their mark. And Guan is happy to be at the forefront of the youth movement.

"I think Chinese golf is growing very fast," says Guan. "Mr Faldo has seen it, right? I think there will be many great golfers in China in 10 or 15 years. I think me playing at the Masters is good for Chinese golf and I will do my best. Golf is interesting because you can't play the same shot. Every time is different. So there is a lot of challenge."

And there are sure to be a lot of memories collected, too, for Guan at Augusta, as he gathers together with friends and family in the week before the event. As well as the practice rounds on the course itself he will play as much as he can from now until April 11 and, again, Faldo says the youngster is turning up with that part of his game plan right.

"I think he'll be debriefing himself for about a month after because I don't think he'll be able to take everything in," says Faldo. "There will be little things that suddenly hit you. But from the whole experience, the most important thing will be to go and play the way you want to play. To be comfortable - that's the number one goal.

"The bottom line is that everyone is nervous - I can promise you. The best players, even Tiger and whoever is world number one, every single player is extremely wound up. So just because you think, 'Oh my goodness I feel nervous about being here' don't worry, I can promise you everybody is. People think that golfers don't get nervous but yes we do. It's all about how you prepare yourself and I think that's the secret."