AUGUSTA, Ga. – Tianlang Guan approached his soon-to-be infamous second shot on the 17th fairway of Augusta National and found company. Ben Crenshaw's ball was a few yards back and to the right. Matteo Manassero's was a little ahead and to the left.
Which ball was which was, perhaps, confusing. Guan appeared concerned about violating one of golf's key rules: You can only play your own ball. The problem was, his ball landed with its logo face down into grass, making easy identification impossible.
Since another rule says you can't pick up or move the ball – even slightly – he crouched down multiple times, even going to all fours, in attempt to look under the ball and make sure he had the right one. Then he did it again, even if Crenshaw and Manassero expressed no such concern over where they landed.
The 14-year-old from China, the youngest player to ever compete in the Masters, was in position to do what many believed impossible – make the cut.
And he was leaving nothing to chance. Nothing. Not even an obvious thing like this.
These attributions of precision, patience and, indeed, pace – not to mention a delicate short game – are what eventually got him to the promised land of the weekend of the Masters.
[Related: Players rip decision to penalize Guan]
It is also what nearly cost him the entire thing.
Just moments after making sure that he had the right ball, throwing grass into the air to check the wind, walking up the hill to get a look at the green and then switching clubs, Guan was penalized a stroke for slow play. Official John Paramor, who earlier had issued two other direct warnings to Guan, ran a stopwatch on him that exceeded the minimum 40-second time limit.
A slow play penalty is so rare the Masters said it had no record of any others ever issued. It's occurred just three other times in the last 16 years of major tournaments and not for years in regular PGA Tour events. The penalty pushed Guan to 3-over on the day and 4-over for the tournament. He only made the cut because leader Jason Day's birdie putt on 18 went just left of the hole.
"I respect the decision," Guan said later of the penalty.
Taking the high road was a smart move for the kid. Especially since he made the cut anyway, a remarkable, remarkable accomplishment. He doesn't need to respect the decision, though.
There is plenty there not worth respecting.
This was the sport of golf in all its conflicting glory. There are rules upon rules, a game of honor in a sport that is played and understood globally. It's what makes golf great.
Yet in the end, there was a potentially cruel judgment call.
[Watch: Breaking down Friday at the Masters]
"He had warnings," Paramor said while standing by the 18th tee, just moments after his decision. "Everything needs to be done to [preserve fast play]. I made that clear on the walk from the 16th green to the 17th tee."
It's not that Guan wasn't guilty of slow play or isn't a slow player. He was and is. If you're a by the book guy, and Paramor claims to be – "No, it's the Masters," he said when asked if the situation merited some slack – then this is easy.
The culture of golf loves to puff out its chest and brag about these things.
"A rule is a rule," Guan's father, Hanwen, said through a translator, echoing the tsk-tsk from golf purists. "But I don't want to talk too much about it."
If he did, he might ask a simple question: What about everyone else? There was slow play everywhere across Augusta National on Friday, as play crawled around the famed course.
Tiger Woods' group teed off at 1:41 p.m. and finished up as the sunset behind the Georgia pines at 7:24. That's a painfully slow 5-hour, 43-minute round and wasn't unusual on this pressurized Friday.
[Related: Leaderboard: Day leads after Round 2]
And yet the only golfer cited for slow play by golf officials was a 14-year-old amateur with a local caddie and painfully little experience on the second-to-last-hole with an historic qualification hanging in the balance, all while playing in a group with the 61-year old Crenshaw, who put up a non-competitive 84? They ding a kid in that situation, but not one multimillionaire star?
"I don't know what they do," Guan said of other golfers playing slow. "But I don't think I'm too bad."
He isn't too bad, certainly not so bad he should've been the only one.
"He got a penalty for slow play?" said leader Day. "Wow."
"I'm sick," Crenshaw said. "I'm sick for him. He's 14 years old, we're playing – when you get the wind blowing out here, believe me, you're going to change your mind a lot."
You can't say a rule is a rule when that very rule isn't uniformly enforced. Once that's the case, the rule becomes subjectively determined. This was a choice.
In the end, a 140-pound middle schooler is playing the weekend rounds of a major championship. No one has ever done that at such an age.
[Related: Tiger Woods in the hunt]
Guan's accomplishment is rooted in his ability to take every little detail so seriously that he was able to ignore the greatest detail of all – he's an eighth grader in the Masters.
He left no detail unaddressed and showed extreme poise and mental toughness. He just plugged and plugged, distractions be damned. Just Thursday, his mother claimed he often concentrated so hard during tournaments he'd forget to eat and then run out of energy. That singular focus almost cost him on the 17th fairway. It's probably how he was able to fight through a cutthroat decision, though.
"It's his very first Masters," Paramor said just after the ruling. "He's a great player and he'll be fine. He's a strong player. I hope he makes a three [birdie] up there [pointing toward the 18th green] and is playing tomorrow."
Guan didn't hit a birdie on 18. He is playing tomorrow, anyway. The only golfer who brought homework with him to Augusta tees off at 9:55 a.m. Saturday.
In the end, he was stronger than even this strangely timed show of rulebook force.
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