By Dennis de Jesus Jr.
By now you’ve heard about Guan Tianglang, the teenage golfer from China who captured the Asia Pacific Amateur Championship in Thailand last weekend to earn a spot in the 2013 Masters tournament in Augusta.
At the age of 14, Tianglang will enter the highly anticipated major tournament as the youngest player in its seventy-seven year history. For many of us non-professional golfers it is merely a pipe dream to even have the opportunity to set foot on the hallowed course of Augusta National, yet here is a 14-year-old kid from the other side of the world who isn’t eligible to watch “The Expendables” but is eligible to not only visit the famed course, but to play on it for a chance to compete for golf’s most recognizable blazer.
I think it would be easy to argue that if you were an actual tour player earning your stripes week after week, competing with the best golfers in the world and not being able to play your way into the Masters would be an example of a disappointing career. After all, like a young athlete who dreams of winning the major championship of their chosen sport, an amateur golfer dreams of putting out on No. 18 at Augusta National and winning the green jacket. It is the pinnacle of the sport — like the Stanley Cup, the World Series or the Super Bowl. Ask any retired professional athlete who didn’t achieve the ultimate goal – it’s often one of their biggest regrets.
So how would it feel if this kid who is barely through puberty and weighs as much as a tour bag soaking wet wins his way into the big show on the merits of only one amateur tournament, doing so against a field of amateurs who are hungry and talented, but definitely not the best players in the world? If I was a tour player who is busting my tail every week against the likes of Woods, McIlroy, Mickelson and not able to crack the strict eligibility of the Masters, I may be pretty upset to see that my spot is perceivably taken by a player who doesn’t have the experience I’ve earned or even holds a driver’s license.
But look at it differently and perhaps the picture becomes a little rosier. I would argue that having Tianglang at next years Masters is nothing but a positive. Although he may be just another amateur champion who has earned the right to compete in one of golf’s greatest stages, his story will undoubtedly be closely followed and much talked about from now until his last putt on the 18th hole, whether he makes the cut for the weekend or not. The exposure he brings by being the youngest player ever coupled with the attraction of potentially being Asia’s next big athlete is a media magnet on both sides of the Pacific Ocean, perhaps even worldwide. It is exposure that the sport isn’t desperate for, but it doesn’t hurt either.
Golf is growing globally, but more specifically in Asia, and having an overseas talent with the notoriety of being born in 1999 at Augusta can only help the growth of the game internationally for both the young and old.
Nowhere is this growth more evident than in China, where it is projected that there will be 20 million golfers by 2020, up from the roughly 1 million that currently participate. That’s not just a casual interest in the game; it’s an explosion of interest in the world’s most populated country. It is then no surprise that more and more big purse tournaments are being hosted in China, while at the same time golf courses are springing up seemingly quicker than a Starbucks franchise (if you want a sense of scale of the Chinese interest in golf, look up “Mission Hills” and then pick up your jaw afterward).
All this interest plus tangible proof that young golfers excelling at the game only adds fuel to the fire that China is serious about golf and is where future growth of the game is headed. Don’t discount the idea that a golfer from China may become No. 1 in the Official World Golf Rankings in our lifetime.
As for the youth movement, it is an incredible achievement to win an amateur tournament, let alone at the age of 14. At 14, I was busy chasing girls and questioning how cool I would look with a cigarette. My dad was already playing golf and as much as he tried to convince me to play, my thought was that golf was a game not a sport, and more reserved for the old folks with weak knees and backs who would announce with a groan every time they stand or sit from a chair. Back then, I would never touch a golf club because that didn’t help my cool factor nor could I relate to someone that piqued my interest at that age. Really, before Tiger Woods came on the scene, how could I teenager compare Michael Jordan to Fred Couples?
Tianglang will make golf cool for people his age and those younger than him. His stardom, even if short term, will likely be enough to expose the sport to a generation of Chinese golfers who haven’t picked up a club and may inspire them to do so in the future. Couple that with the powerful funding support that the government is providing, the future and growth of the sport in China will be attributed to the success and exposure of already established golf superstars like Tiger and Rory and now upcoming talent like Guan Tianglang, who is already a winner no matter how he fares at Augusta.
So what does it all mean for the current PGA Tour player who is still trying to win his way into the Masters? It is simple. This squeaky voiced kid from China, who hasn’t yet developed the frame of a prototypical athlete, is no different from any other amateur who won and earned their way into the tournament. But what sets Guan Tianglang apart from other amateurs competing in Augusta is having the novelty of being the youngest ever who also just happens to be from the very country that will be integral to grow the sport exponentially in the future.
This translates to more exposure, more sponsorship and more prize money for golfers now and in the future. For the ineligible tour player, the dream of playing in the Masters may be delayed by another year but hard work and determination will still be the main objective for making it in 2014. In the meantime, they should enjoy the fanfare, take advantage of the lucrative sponsorships (both direct and indirect) and thank this pimply-faced kid for elevating the sport to another level of public interest. If that’s a bad thing for golfers who pursue this sport as their profession, I don’t think they’re seeing the bigger picture.