Guan, 14, astounds in Masters opener

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- After Tianlang Guan split the middle of the first fairway at Augusta National on Thursday afternoon in the first round of the 77th Masters, a middle-aged male patron put the moment into context for his friends.

"Gentlemen," he said. "We were in the right place at the right time. That was history."

Guan, a 14-year-old Chinese eighth-grader, who qualified for the Masters by winning the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship in November, shot a 1-over 73 in his first official round at Augusta.

From that initial tee shot to the birdie putt he made at the 18th hole, Guan looked composed and unfazed by the historic nature of the occasion.

His parents hadn't been able to sleep on Wednesday night, but their boy was rested and attuned to the complexities of Augusta National, and the large galleries that looked on in amazement at this little boy playing with grown men.

"I was a little bit nervous on the first tee, but I hit a great tee shot and after that everything felt comfortable," said Guan, who has been in Augusta for nearly a month preparing for the tournament and sits T-46 after 18 holes -- which is right on the cutline.

The kid made a big impression on Ben Crenshaw, who played with him on Thursday and in a practice round on Monday.

"[Guan] played like a veteran today, a 28-year-old journeyman whose been around the block and made a ton of cuts," said the 61-year-old, two-time Masters champion. "He played a beautiful round of golf. He stays well within himself. He's very confident and his thought process never got rushed. Very patient. Very impressive."

Fred Couples, another past Masters champion, called Guan's 73 "phenomenal."

Crenshaw, as great a putter as there has ever been in the Masters, raved about Guan's short game.

"[Guan] played about four of the most delicate pitches you have ever seen," he said. "It must help to have 14-year-old nerves."

Guan is a largely self-taught player. It's unlikely that his swing will ever look like Adam Scott's or Justin Rose's or any of the other young players with golf academy-bred swings.

On Thursday, Guan demonstrated with a deft short game that he is truly a feel player, a God-given skill that will survive through the maturation of his full swing.

For this week, he employed a local caddie, Brian Tam, who has worked at Augusta National for over a decade.

"Brian really did a good job of helping Guan around the course," said Carl Jackson, Crenshaw's caddie, who is working his 52nd Masters. "But he plays like a veteran in his own right."

At 14 with a slight build, Guan doesn't yet have a power game. On many of Augusta's long par 4s, he was forced to hit hybrids into the greens, but he handled his limitations with surgical care.

"He did all he had to do," said Matteo Manassero, who also played with Guan on Thursday and who knows something about being a young Masters participant after making his first start here at 16 in 2010. "Obviously not having that much distance, he needs to keep the ball in play, and he's done that well.

"He's made some nice putts and he recovered well. I think 1-over was a good score for him. But you can see he can do it tomorrow again without any problem. I think it's a good potential."

Through the years, we have seen many prodigies who never quite fulfilled the promise they had as adolescents. Tiger Woods is all the more impressive that he survived a childhood riddled with the responsibility and pressure to become a great golfer.

It will be very interesting to watch Guan's growing pains in what will be the harsh spotlight of the international golf world.

"I see nothing but straight up from here," Crenshaw said of the teenager. "I think he'll grow more. He's only 14. But it's obvious he has a great love for it."

Guan's parents were around on Thursday to support their son. It's an exciting time for their family and the future of Chinese golf.

Through an interpreter, the Guans conveyed that they were not worried about this attention being too much for their child. They said they just wanted him to have fun.

He was asked if he could win this tournament.

"I think probably not this year," he said, "but I think I can win it in future."

For now he's just trying to have fun and enjoy his first Masters and hoping to make the cut.

"I think I will do pretty much the same way," Guan said of his second-round hopes. "I will try to relax and focus on my game. Hopefully, I can hit a couple of good shots and I will see how things go."

No matter what happens on Friday, we saw enough on Thursday to know that Guan has a long future in the game of golf.