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Guan so young, so confident entering Masters

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It sounds like one of those classic old Johnny Carson jokes. “Tianlang Guan is so young …”

“How young is he?” the crowd asks in unison, anticipating the punch line.

“Tianlang Guan is so young … that when Tiger Woods won his first green jacket, he wasn’t even born yet!”

Funny, right? In a way, yes. But that’s no punch line. Guan, who will soon become the youngest competitor in Masters history, was born on Oct. 25, 1998, which means he wasn’t even a glint in his parents’ eyes when Woods first became a major champion.

If that doesn’t make you feel old, then you’re probably doing the same geometry homework as him right now.

“I can't fathom that,” Steve Stricker says when asked about competing against a fellow player who’s nearly the same age as his oldest daughter. “It's hard to comprehend that they're that good at such an early age, but kids get started early nowadays.”

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At 14, the boy affectionately called Langley is getting started earlier at Augusta National than anyone before him. He’s more than two years younger than Matteo Manassero was in 2010, back when we were doing similar head-shaking about a kid who hadn’t yet turned 17.

In an era when teenagers are competing in majors, qualifying for PGA Tour membership and winning LPGA titles, it’s easy to become desensitized to exactly what Guan is accomplishing at such a young age, but let’s not take for granted that the kid will be competing in the world’s most celebrated golf tournament long before he can ever apply for a learner’s permit to drive.

Asked in an email interview to gauge his excitement level, and you can almost feel his smile beaming through the inbox: “To be the youngest player in the history of the Masters, I feel very honored, excited and looking forward to it. I know I will enjoy it very much. Also, I very appreciate for everything my parents have done for me; it has been a long journey to them as well.”

As for what would make Masters week a success, he sounds wise beyond his years.

“It is an honor for me to be able to play with the best golfers in the world. To me, the only goal is to enjoy the event and give my best. And of course, if I can make the cut, that would be even better!”

It’s a lofty goal for the Asian Amateur Championship winner, who will have plenty of supporters rooting for him, but just as many guarded with skepticism.

Chances are, Guan may know Arnold Palmer solely as “that dude from the video game,” but the four-time Masters champion, who is 69 years his elder, sounds a bit worried that such weighty pressure could cause more harm than good for the kid.

“I'm not so sure that it isn't more of a detriment than it is a plus for him,” Palmer bluntly states. “I think that if he had a little more experience and a little more time to play the game and play in competition, that he might want to wait a little longer to attack something like Augusta. But as far as the rules and the club (are) concerned, if he can qualify, let him have at it.”

He’ll be having at it on the most prestigious, pristine turf the game knows, for at least 36 holes, in the spotlight throughout. While media coverage – and scrutiny – will be in full force here in the U.S. when he tees it up Thursday, it will be nothing compared with the wall-to-wall analysis he’ll receive from outlets in his native China.

It remains to be seen whether he can walk the walk of an elite player someday, but the confident kid can certainly talk the talk already.

“I am very good at it,” he says when asked what he likes most about golf. “If you are good at something, it will keep motivating you to become even better.”

Off the course, Guan is just a regular 14-year-old. He enjoys playing basketball, riding his bicycle around the neighborhood and checking out video games. He’s got plenty of friends his age and likes watching DVDs about Tiger Woods, the guy who’s been winning majors since before he was born.

Yes, he’s just a regular 14-year-old – with a Masters invitation.

And some super-sized dreams.

“I hope one day I can win four majors in one year,” he proudly boasts of the never-before-accomplished, professional Grand Slam. “I genuinely want to achieve this dream.”

Precocious? Absolutely. But hey, he’s still a kid. He’s supposed to dream big. And besides, he already knows a little something about making history.