Tianlang Guan: Will the 14-Year-Old Prodigy Develop into a Star?
For all narrative purposes, Tianlang Guan's Masters ended Saturday.
The 14-year-old Chinese phenom shot his worst round of the tournament at five-over 77, and now he trails all but one of the 61 golfers who made this year's cut.
Guan will finish out the string on Sunday and probably land somewhere near the back of the pack. The crowd will applaud his effort. Columnists will hit "publish" on their already-written paeans to Guan's courage. And the golf world will quickly return to the business of crowning a Masters champion.
What Guan achieved in becoming the youngest ever to both participate in the Masters and make the cut is bound to define his career moving forward. It will distinguish him from his generational peers at every turn, either as the preamble to a legendary career or a gloomy reminder of what could have been.
In other words, Guan is no longer a promising 14-year-old golfer—of which there are many. He's the promising 14-year-old golfer who held his own at Augusta National...and he always will be.
Like any sport, golf has its inner circle of prodigy busts.
South African Bobby Cole made the Masters cut at 18 but never quite reached stardom, settling instead into solid professional career that included third-place finishes at the British Open and PGA Championship.
Ty Tryon stunned the golfing world in 2001 when he turned pro at the tender age of 16. After some initial success—including a made cut at the Honda Open—Tryon quickly faded from view. He has qualified for just two major championships.
In 1957, 15-year-old Canadian Bob Panasik became the youngest golfer ever to last all four rounds at a PGA Tour event. Panasik never finished higher than 42nd at a major over the next two decades.
In the early 1970s, Floridian Eddie Pearce became the latest in a long line of amateur sensations to earn the esteemed "Next Nicklaus" label. Many drinks later, he finished his PGA career with just one win.
For some, like Pearce, hard living triggered the demise. For others, it was an inability to handle pressure or a stalled physique.
Sergio Garcia never quite mastered the game's mental challenges. Johnny Miller's putter left him short of massive expectations.
On and on the requiems go.
The toughest thing to project with Guan is his physical maturation. It's not just that the 14-year-old is two-to-five years younger than his peers in the golf prodigy set, it's that those two-to-five years are particularly formative, and thus the hardest to predict.
Soccer standout Freddy Adu was man among boys at 14. Same goes for basketball sensation Demetrius Walker, who landed on the cover of Sports Illustrated under a hook that read, in part, "the next Lebron?"
Adu and Walker stopped growing, and the physical advantages that birthed their nascent fame soon dissipated. Guan, for all we know, could follow a similar path.
We should, however, approach all this negativity with caution.
It will always be easier to list those that fell short of expectations than those that fulfilled them. That's the nature of superstardom—it's exclusive. Even among those who appear to have the requisite skills, the success rate will necessarily be low.
And there is good news.
Run down the list of greatest golfers ever. Or, for that matter, run down the list of greatest athletes in any sport. You'll find that most, to some degree, could have once been classified as prodigies.
Jack Nicklaus won the Ohio Open at age 16. Gary Player turned pro at 17. Tiger Woods was hitting golf balls on national television when he was two. Ernie Els won the 1984 Junior World Golf Championship; Phil Mickelson finished second.
How many tournaments will Tianlang Guan win as a professional?
Guan's career, more than likely, will follow a lesser track. But his Masters play at the very least confirms his potential, leaving us to debate the inflection points that await him.
We know Guan has a deft touch and refined short game. We don't know if he'll develop the strength needed to drive at a world-class level.
We know Guan kept an even keel during his Masters debut despite numerous obstacles and obvious pressures. We don't know how he'll react over time to the crush of attention that surely awaits him in this rapacious media climate.
We know he seems like a motivated kid with supportive parents. We don't know how that relationship, or his priorities, might shift over time.
That's golf. That's life.
And much as we would like to see Guan flourish, for now, all we can do is satisfy ourselves with the notion that the kid has a chance.
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