Teen's presence one of many unusual sights at 2013 Masters

By Jason SobelNovember 5, 2012, 5:23 pm

Allow me to be your advanced tour guide around Augusta National Golf Club, oh, about 155 days from now, as the venerable institution prepares to host the 77th edition of The Masters Tournament.

That sound you’ll hear is the supercharged engine of the General Lee, followed by the irrepressible Dixie air horn, as defending champion Bubba Watson cruises his way down Magnolia Lane with a contingent from Waffle House in tow to present the Champions Dinner.

Those two women walking the course in green jackets will be Condoleezza Rice and Darla Moore, the first female members of the club, their mere presence signifying a new era on these grounds.

And that kid drawing everyone’s attention, the one tipping the scales at a buck twenty-five with a thin layer of peachfuzz atop his upper lip, well, that’s Tianlang Guan, the Asia-Pacific Amateur champion who’ll tee it up that week at the ripe old age of 14.

The powers-that-be at Augusta National won’t condone any analogy to a three-ring circus, but about the only thing this place will be missing is Al Czervik asking if somebody stepped on a duck.

Next year’s Masters will skip evolution and go straight to revolution. Or maybe the Mayans were just off by a few months.

It’s safe to say Clifford Roberts didn’t have any of this in mind decades ago. He never envisioned a champion named Bubba who owns the Dukes of Hazzard car, never foresaw women being members of the club, never anticipated a 14-year-old competing in his world-class invitational.

Which of those developments was least likely? That’s a question undoubtedly sparking some lively debate in 19th holes around the world right now.

Give me the kid. I mean, let’s think about this: A 14-year-old from China who is barely taller than his belly putter now has an invitation to hang in the Crow’s Nest. Sure, other kids his age have gotten into the Masters, but only with free admission if accompanied by an adult badge holder.

Now they’ll have to get their tickets to the Guan Show.

Guan will be on the inside of the ropes, competing in the world’s most famous golf tournament alongside the likes of Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els and Lee Westwood, each of whom was a top-20 player when Guan was born on Oct. 25, 1998, and remains inside that ranking today.

He’ll be the youngest competitor in tournament history, surpassing Matteo Manassero’s mark by more than two years. He’ll be a month younger than fellow Chinese wunderkind Andy Zhang was when he competed in this year’s U.S. Open.

Maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised, though. After all, Beethoven held his first public performance at age 7. Picasso painted “Picador” at age 8. And a guy named Michael Kearney is in the Guinness Book of World Records for graduating college at age 10.

By those standards, Guan has some serious catching up to do.

His success – and that of so many other young players recently – can be explained by a variety of factors from technological advancements to increased coaching methodology to treating amateur golf with the mindset of a professional.

One factor which shouldn’t be overlooked is the Tiger Effect. For years, we’ve been waiting for a direct impact of Woods’ success on the game’s most elite level and now we’re witnessing it.

Need proof? Guan first started playing the game when he was 4 years old, which was not too terribly long after Woods claimed his so-called Tiger Slam, hoisting all four major championship trophies onto his mantel at the same time. The teenager has met his golfing hero twice, playing a hole with him each time – and obviously using those meetings as motivation in his own endeavors.

“I think he has a strong mind and strong heart,” Guan explained, “so I think that's why he's so great.”

Sometime in the not-too-distant future, up-and-coming golfers may be speaking of Guan in the same reverential tones. He’s an impressive youngster – and that’s not just a commendation of his golf game. For a 14-year-old who speaks English as a second language, he’s not only fluent, but eloquent, purporting intellect that makes him wise beyond his years.

When asked how much pride he feels about becoming the youngest Masters competitor ever, he acknowledges that sentiment, but claims it’s about much more than himself.

“I think it really helps Chinese golf and the Chinese golfers,” he said. “They will maybe train even harder and get more people that know about that.”

Of course, let’s not forget that he is just 14 years old. Like any 14-year-old, he took to Twitter to boast of his most recent accomplishment, even tweeting: “I want to win the US Masters at Augusta.”

Hey, who doesn’t? But you’ve got to be in it to win it, and Guan has already accomplished the first part of that equation.

It’s all part of a changing scene at Augusta National, one that will possess a much different feel some 155 days from now.

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McIlroy gets back on track

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 21, 2018, 3:10 pm

There’s only one way to view Rory McIlroy’s performance at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship:

He is well ahead of schedule.

Sure, McIlroy is probably disappointed that he couldn’t chase down Ross Fisher (and then Tommy Fleetwood) on the final day at Abu Dhabi Golf Club. But against a recent backdrop of injuries and apathy, his tie for third was a resounding success. He reasserted himself, quickly, and emerged 100 percent healthy.

“Overall, I’m happy,” he said after finishing at 18-under 270, four back of Fleetwood. “I saw some really, really positive signs. My attitude, patience and comfort level were really good all week.”

To fully appreciate McIlroy’s auspicious 2018 debut, consider his state of disarray just four months ago. He was newly married. Nursing a rib injury. Breaking in new equipment. Testing another caddie. His only constant was change. “Mentally, I wasn’t in a great place,” he said, “and that was because of where I was physically.”

And so he hit the reset button, taking the longest sabbatical of his career, a three-and-a-half-month break that was as much psychological as physical. He healed his body and met with a dietician, packing five pounds of muscle onto his already cut frame. He dialed in his TaylorMade equipment, shoring up a putting stroke and wedge game that was shockingly poor for a player of his caliber. Perhaps most importantly, he cleared his cluttered mind, cruising around Italy with wife Erica in a 1950s Mercedes convertible.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

After an intense buildup to his season debut, McIlroy was curious about the true state of his game, about how he’d stack up when he finally put a scorecard in his hand. It didn’t take him long to find out. 

Playing the first two rounds alongside Dustin Johnson – the undisputed world No. 1 who was fresh off a blowout victory at Kapalua – McIlroy beat him by a shot. Despite a 103-day competitive layoff, he played bogey-free for 52 holes. And he put himself in position to win, trailing by one heading into the final round. Though Fleetwood blew away the field with a back-nine 30 to defend his title, McIlroy collected his eighth top-5 in his last nine appearances in Abu Dhabi.

“I know it’s only three months,” he said, “but things change, and I felt like maybe I needed a couple of weeks to get back into the thought process that you need to get into for competitive golf. I got into that pretty quickly this week, so that was the most pleasing thing.”

The sense of relief afterward was palpable. McIlroy is entering his 11th full year as a pro, and deep down he likely realizes 2018 is shaping up as his most important yet.

The former Boy Wonder is all grown up, and his main challengers now are a freakish athlete (DJ) and a trio of players under 25 (Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm) who don’t lack for motivation or confidence. The landscape has changed significantly since McIlroy’s last major victory, in August 2014, and the only way he’ll be able to return to world No. 1 is to produce a sustained period of exceptional golf, like the rest of the game’s elite. (Based on average points, McIlroy, now ranked 11th, is closer to the bottom of the rankings, No. 1928, than to Johnson.)

But after years of near-constant turmoil, McIlroy, 28, finally seems ready to pursue that goal again. He is planning the heaviest workload of his career – as many as 30 events, including seven more starts before the Masters – and appears refreshed and reenergized, perhaps because this year, for the first time in a while, he is playing without distractions.

Not his relationships or his health. Not his equipment or his caddie or his off-course dealings.

Everything in his life is lined up.

Drama tends to follow one of the sport’s most captivating characters, but for now he can just play golf – lots and lots of golf. How liberating.

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Crocker among quartet of Open qualifiers in Singapore

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 2:20 pm

Former amateur standout Sean Crocker was among four players who qualified for the 147th Open via top-12 finishes this week at the Asian Tour's SMBC Singapore Open as part of the Open Qualifying Series.

Crocker had a strong college career at USC before turning pro late last year. The 21-year-old received an invitation into this event shortly thereafter, and he made the most of his appearance with a T-6 finish to net his first career major championship berth.

There were four spots available to those not otherwise exempt among the top 12 in Singapore, but winner Sergio Garcia and runners-up Shaun Norris and Satoshi Kodaira had already booked their tickets for Carnoustie. That meant that Thailand's Danthai Boonma and Jazz Janewattanond both qualified thanks to T-4 finishes.

Full-field scores from the Singapore Open

Crocker nabbed the third available qualifying spot, while the final berth went to Australia's Lucas Herbert. Herbert entered the week ranked No. 274 in the world and was the highest-ranked of the three otherwise unqualified players who ended the week in a tie for eighth.

The next event in the Open Qualifying Series will be in Japan at the Mizuno Open in May, when four more spots at Carnoustie will be up for grabs. The 147th Open will be held July 19-22 in Carnoustie, Scotland.

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Got a second? Fisher a bridesmaid again

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:40 pm

Ross Fisher is in the midst of a career resurgence - he just doesn't have the hardware to prove it.

Fisher entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship with a share of the lead, and as he made the turn he appeared in position to claim his first European Tour victory since March 2014. But he slowed just as Tommy Fleetwood caught fire, and when the final putt fell Fisher ended up alone in second place, two shots behind his fellow Englishman.

It continues a promising trend for Fisher, who at age 37 now has 14 career runner-up finishes and three in his last six starts dating back to October. He was edged by Tyrrell Hatton both at the Italian Open and the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in the fall, and now has amassed nine worldwide top-10 finishes since March.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

Fisher took a big step toward ending his winless drought with an eagle on the par-5 second followed by a pair of birdies, and he stood five shots clear of Fleetwood with only nine holes to go. But while Fleetwood played Nos. 10-15 in 4 under, Fisher played the same stretch in 2 over and was unable to eagle the closing hole to force a playoff.

While Fisher remains in search of an elusive trophy, his world ranking has benefited from his recent play. The veteran was ranked outside the top 100 in the world as recently as September 2016, but his Abu Dhabi runner-up result is expected to move him inside the top 30 when the new rankings are published.

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McIlroy (T-3) notches another Abu Dhabi close call

By Will GrayJanuary 21, 2018, 1:08 pm

Rory McIlroy's trend of doing everything but hoist the trophy at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship is alive and well.

Making his first start since early October, McIlroy showed few signs of rust en route to a tie for third. Amid gusty winds, he closed with a 2-under 70 to finish the week at 18 under, four shots behind Tommy Fleetwood who rallied to win this event for the second consecutive year.

The result continues a remarkable trend for the Ulsterman, who has now finished third or better seven of the last eight years in Abu Dhabi - all while never winning the tournament. That stretch includes four runner-up finishes and now two straight T-3 results.

Full-field scores from the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship

McIlroy is entering off a disappointing 2017 in which he was injured in his first start and missed two chunks of time while trying to regain his health. He has laid out an ambitious early-season schedule, one that will include a trip to Dubai next week and eight worldwide tournament starts before he heads to the Masters.

McIlroy started the final round one shot off the lead, and he remained in contention after two birdies over his first four holes. But a bogey on No. 6 slowed his momentum, and McIlroy wasn't able to make a back-nine birdie until the closing hole, at which point the title was out of reach.