AUGUSTA, Ga. – Hongyu Liu had purchased a Masters tote bag, and early Thursday morning she dutifully filled it with supplies.
There was a small, blue insulated lunch box, which she decided would be good for keeping some juice boxes cold. There were a couple of energy bars, two bananas and a fresh towel, in case it rained. She also was carrying three umbrellas.
This was a mother's care package, a portable support system for Tianlang Guan, who was about to become the youngest Masters participant ever. For Hongyu, the idea her son might duff his first tee shot was not a concern. Everything else was.
"He forgets to eat," Hongyu said as she watched him take some final putts on the practice green of Augusta National. "He gets so focused he forgets. So I’m carrying this stuff."
Tianlang hails from Guangzhou, China. He qualified for the Masters last fall by winning the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship. He's a 5-foot-8, 140-pound prodigy who should be in an eighth-grade classroom and has the messy bedroom back home to prove it. "He doesn’t really clean it," mom said. "He’s like a normal [teenager.]"
Normal? Well, this week he had a practice round with Tiger Woods – "He's 14," Tiger said. "Good stuff." – a sit-down with Jack Nicklaus, and this scene Thursday: a huge gallery of fans craning their necks to see his first shot, a simultaneous glimpse at both history and the future.
He smacked it dead center down the first fairway – his playing group included 61-year-old Ben Crenshaw – en route to a solid 1-over-par 73, which he capped off by dropping a 20-foot birdie putt on 18.
Hongyu was not surprised by her kid's poise. "He’s been in over 200 tournaments." She, along with her husband and a small group of family friends, wasn't nervous at all about his ability to play the game. This was a day of celebration.
She is a mom though, so she was worried about Tianlang's habit of forgetting to snack and running out of energy. Prior to the round she called over her son's caddie, Brian Tam, and spoke to him via a translator.
"He’s not in the habit of asking for food, so you have to give it to him to remind him," she said.
Tam nodded and said that he noticed that during a practice round. Hongyu said she'd be right alongside in the gallery with the snacks. So just come over. And she wanted to plan a forced food break after the ninth hole.
[Watch: Thursday recap]
Tam just laughed a little. This was clearly a thorough plan (and one that would be later followed: a banana was consumed on the walk to the 10th tee). Hongyu also had those three umbrellas with her. The woman thought of everything. She didn't want them in the golf bag however, because it might make it too heavy and burdensome for the caddie.
"It's good," Tam said with a laugh. "I’ve carried much heavier."
Mom wouldn't switch up though. This is how it would work, she said. The caddie deferred. Soon her son was heading to the tee box and she was off, happy and relaxed to stroll the course.
Tianlang is slight, looks young, but swings hard. There were worries his lack of distance would get him, but he bombed some shots off the tee by playing bigger clubs. He can putt as well as nearly anyone.
Other than Tiger Woods, Tianlang was the most anticipated start of Thursday's opening round, old and young trying to imagine being him.
On the second hole, he wound up just in front of the green and walked past three kids from the local First Tee program – Tyler Troxel, 9; D.J. Kellar, 12; and Naitian Zhou, 13.
All three wanted to see a peer play with the pros, although they admit they didn’t have much in common with challenging Augusta National … other than the video game version.
"We have the Masters game," Troxel said.
So how would they play this shot, virtually?
"I’d go for the hole," Troxel said.
"Sand wedge," Kellar added. "Definitely sand wedge."
They all laughed and sort of marveled at the site of a junior high kid playing in the Masters. One hole later, Tianlang drained a 12-footer for birdie, causing an eruption of cheers and then holding the ball aloft to acknowledge the crowd. He has some personality to him.
His father, Hanwen, and friend John Ho, who owns the course in China where Tianlang plays, came bouncing by, patting each other on the shoulder, excited at the big shot. The dream is to somehow make the cut. At that moment the kid was even par.
Hongyu Liu walked behind them, more reserved. This is exactly what she expected out of her boy. This is how he plays. Why would Augusta National be any different?
Mom was just having fun watching her son. The tote bag of snacks and juice boxes was still slung over her shoulder.
Across this warm, humid afternoon, Guan stunned the golf world with two things – his outrageously soft hands around the green and his poise, even in the wake of mistakes.
When he was seemingly lost behind the sixth green, he executed a perfect up and down for par. When he made a poor chip on nine and wound up with a bogey, he immediately responded with a birdie on 10. When he went into the pond on 11, a recovery shot saved bogey, and he then settled into par, birdie through Amen Corner.
“It must help to have 14-year-old nerves,” Crenshaw joked. “I’m telling you, he played like a veteran. He played a beautiful round of golf. His thought process, he never got rushed … at 14 to have the presence like that?”
Combine that with a world-class short game – which Gaun said is self-taught, has never been coached and something he only works on during weekends – and the rest of the golfing world – weekend hackers, anyway – might just consider quitting the game.
When he sunk a putt from just off the green at 18, seemingly oblivious to the stakes and theater, he pumped his fist and waved his hat to the cheering gallery. He finished with a 73, tied for 46th and every bit in the hunt to make the cut on Friday [the top 50 move on].
His mother, standing behind the green, jumped up and down and clapped before recording his score on a handmade scorecard.
“Wonderful,” she said. “I’m very happy.”
Others in the gallery realized who she was and began trying to hand her business cards.
“Today’s pretty special for me,” Tianlang Guan noted later. “It’s amazing to play in the Masters.”
And forget just wondering if he can make the cut – an absolutely ridiculous assertion prior to this. Guan was asked about winning the whole tournament.
“I think probably not this year, but I think in the future.”
That isn’t even the big dream.
“Hopefully I can win the four majors in one year.”
Coming from just about any other golfer that would be the definition of gumption. Not here, not today. No one in Augusta laughed. No one doubts it’s not possible.
Pressure and fatigue and youth may wind up dooming the kid on Friday, who knows? But here on a remarkable opening day in the life of a 14 year old, everything turned out perfect, everything went according to plan.
“I am happy he ate the snack,” his mom said before heading off to congratulate her kid.
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