If anybody could relate to what Tianlang Guan has done the past month, it would be University of Texas product Jordan Spieth.
Spieth competed in the HP Byron Nelson Championship as a 16-year-old amateur in 2010 and remembered the nerves running through his body before his first tee shot.
“I was just trying to make contact,” the Dallas native said. “I ended up hitting a good drive, but I could have sworn I closed my eyes.”
Spieth had opened plenty of eyes by Sunday, finishing tied for 16th in his hometown tournament, but knows that’s nothing compared to what Guan has accomplished as a 14-year-old.
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The Chinese eighth-grader made the cut last month at the Masters and was the low amateur. Two weeks later, he made the cut at the Zurich Classic of New Orleans, and now he’s the youngest player to enter the Nelson.
“I can’t exactly relate because that’s 14, that’s not even high school yet,” said Spieth, who was the low amateur at last year’s U.S. Open.
“It’s incredible what he’s doing. I watched him at the Masters and honestly thought it could be too much for him, and he surprised the whole world.”
Spieth and Guan might be in their teen years and a combined 33 years between them, but they have established themselves as up-and-coming players who could become stars in the future. They are certainly two of the more intriguing storylines as the first round of the Nelson begins Thursday at the TPC Four Seasons.
It falls in line with the Nelson’s history, too, as the tournament has a proud reputation of showcasing the young talent in the game. Players such as Tiger Woods, Sergio Garcia, Justin Leonard and Spieth have all played in the tournament as teenagers, and Guan will join that list.
Tournament officials initially met Guan in late April at the New Orleans event, discovered there was mutual interest in him playing the Nelson and extended him a sponsor’s exemption a few weeks later.
“We’re real excited about it and I think it has generated a lot of interest,” tournament chairman Mike McKinley said. “He’s a very mannerly young man, very articulate and the kid can play golf. I watched him and he’s unbelievable.”
Guan had a memorable run at the Masters. He shot a 1-over 73 in the first round, and then a 3-over 75 in the second round, including a one-stroke penalty for slow play, to make the cut at 4 over. He finished 58th.
Two weeks later, Guan made the cut again in New Orleans and finished 71st.
Guan is the youngest player to make a professional cut in the modern era (since 1900). He is more than a full year younger than Bob Panasik, who made the cut at the 1957 Canadian Open at 15.
Spieth is the seventh youngest to make a cut for his 2010 run at the Nelson.
But it’s Guan who turned the most heads — including Spieth’s — by keeping his composure on arguably golf’s biggest stage at Augusta National. How does he do it?
“I played a lot of tournaments before the Masters and I prepared for the Masters for a long time,” Guan said. “Being out there helped in New Orleans and it helps here. ...This week, I want to enjoy the experience and hope to make the cut. If I make the cut, I hope to play better and better.”
Both Spieth and Guan appear to have maintained as normal a lifestyle as they can for their ages. Spieth, 19, has moved out of his parents’ house and into an apartment with a college friend in the Uptown area of Dallas, while Guan has gone surfing and to an NBA game since he’s been in the U.S.
There is one significant difference between the two, though. Spieth, who turned pro after one year at Texas, is eligible for a paycheck if he makes the cut, while Guan can’t receive compensation as an amateur.
“[As an amateur], you look at the newspaper the day after and see what everyone else that tied with you made and it shows a big, fat zero next to your name,” Spieth said, smiling. “So it’s nice to be able to get money for playing golf.”
At some point, Guan should enjoy that luxury.