AVONDALE, La. – By the time Guan Tianlang finished his opening round of the Zurich Classic, the leader had been off the property for about six hours, the struggling players likely were two beers deep in the French Quarter, and the grandstands behind the 18th green were virtually empty, save for a few hearty volunteers. No, that was not a slow-play reference.
In the gloaming Thursday, the 14-year-old from China polished off another impressive performance, even if this time, the viewing audience paled in comparison.
His even-par 72 – punctuated by a near-ace on the 17th hole – left him at T-85 in the 156-player field. The low 70 and ties make the cut. More history awaits.
“I think I played pretty good golf,” he said afterward. “Not the best, but I made some up and downs and a couple of birdies.”
Asked if he thinks he can make the cut, Guan replied, unsmiling: “If I play well.”
TPC Louisiana never will be mistaken for Augusta National, but what the kid has accomplished (again) baffles his peers.
Here’s one of Guan’s fellow playing competitors, Justin Bolli: “I didn’t think this course set up that well for him, because it’s wet and long (1.4 inches of rain fell Wednesday). But he definitely left a couple out there. I think he could probably have played better, but for a 14-year-old it was phenomenal. I don’t think I would have broken 90 out here if I was 14.”
Sadly, the unusualness of his stroke-play penalty at the Masters has overshadowed the incredible achievement – that a 14-year-old made the cut in a major, easily becoming the youngest ever to do so, and eventually finished T-58.
To many, the penalty – surprising, yes, but not undeserved – has turned Guan into a sympathetic figure. Jack Nicklaus, deliberate in his day, said earlier this week, “There are hundreds of guys who are much slower probably than (he was) and they figure out a way to get away with it.”
And clearly, Guan has made a concerted effort to pick up the pace, perhaps stung by the criticism.
On Thursday, he was almost always the first to walk off the tee box or approach the green.
When he used the restroom between Nos. 5 and 6, he jogged back to the tee so as not to give the appearance that he was lagging behind. Never mind that the group ahead was still in the fairway. His threesome played in 5 hours, 10 minutes.
“He’s not fast, but it was not an issue at all,” said Henrik Norlander, the third player in Guan’s group. “We couldn’t go anywhere. We waited most of the day. I’m sure he learned something at the Masters to speed up a little bit. But it’s tough for him too, because he’s hitting first into every green.”
For full shots, Guan takes one practice swing, then no more than four looks.
On the greens, he makes two practice strokes, steps in, then takes two or three peeks at the hole.
During his 72 – an opening-round score better than Bubba Watson and Charles Howell III, Thorbjorn Olesen and Jordan Spieth – Guan stayed largely out of trouble, save for a drive on No. 6 that left him stymied against a tree.
“His short game,” said Todd McPherson, Guan’s local caddie for the week, “is better than a lot of pros out here.”
At 5-foot-9, 135 pounds, Guan still is the ultimate “game manager,” to borrow a phrase that will be uttered hundreds of times during this week’s NFL Draft coverage. When he’s in trouble, he finds a way out. He doesn’t make double bogeys. He lags long putts close. He attacks only when the opportunity arises. Indeed, he’s sounding more and more like a backup quarterback.
But if he’s to play more of these Tour events – and Nick Faldo was among those who urged the 14-year-old to remain amateur until he was “bored winning amateur events” – this is about what he will face: a rain-soaked course that played about 7,400 yards on the card.
Guan hit 5-woods into par 3s, never threatened the par 5s, and rarely had irons left into the greens.
In all, he found 9 of 14 fairways, 11 greens, and took 29 putts. That, perhaps, is the most telling statistic. He made all 16 attempts inside 10 feet, but sank only two putts longer than 6 feet. In other words, it could have been better.
“It wasn’t like he was chipping it in from everywhere,” Norlander said. “He was playing solid. But more impressive is that he goes out here and isn’t afraid at all. It’s like he’s been playing out here for years.”
Last month, Norlander – who went to Augusta State and helped the team win back-to-back NCAA titles a few years ago – played a practice round while Guan while he was in the area preparing for the Masters.
“I don’t even want to think if he hit the same clubs I was hitting into the greens,” Norlander said. “The thing is, he gets close with a 5-wood. His 5-wood is his go-to. It’s so good.
“He’s just a solid putter, good chipper, and great emotionally, pretty level. When I was 14, I was throwing clubs and screaming and wanting to quit after one bad shot. But he’s very mature for his age. It’s unreal, actually.”