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Time is plentiful for this child protégé

If you are a parent of an unusually bright, athletically gifted or exceptional musically inclined child, then what I am about to say may strike a chord. You more than most will know that the normal pressures of parenthood, the worries you have for your children and your understandable desire to do the best for them, are increased significantly.

Let me explain. I have just returned from the Masters where I watched Tianlang Guan, the most gifted 14-year-old I have ever seen, play over a demanding golf course as if he was years older and much more experienced. The youngest ever to qualify for the Masters by two years, he also became the youngest to last four rounds, something that many established stars, including Louis Oosthuizen (last year’s runner-up at the Masters), Graeme McDowell, Ian Poulter and Webb Simpson all failed to do. Sports such as gymnastics and swimming are full of prodigies. Music is, too.

But golf less so, even though Andy Zhang, another Chinese, competed in last year’s US Open when he was two months older than Guan is now and Young Tom Morris was Guan’s age when he competed at the 1885 Open Championship. Guan is exceptional then but not unique. He is golf's equivalent of the pianist who tops the bill at Carnegie Hall and whose feet can barely reach the pedals.

He is interesting because he comes from a country where golf is formally banned by the government yet hundreds of courses are being built and there is a huge burgeoning market. China is expected to provide dozens of crack golfers, men and women, in time for the Rio Olympics.

Contributing to Guan's mystique at the Masters was that he seemed the embodiment of the inscrutable man from the East. In press conferences, he composed himself carefully before he answered questions. He seemed calm and controlled at ease with himself. He has short, closely cropped hair atop a tranquil face that rarely changes expression. “One of the things that struck me about him was that his countenance never changed” Ben Crenshaw, a playing partner of Guan’s for the first two rounds, said. “Even when he received a one-stroke penalty for slow play in his second round, his countenance never changed. Remarkable.”

Crenshaw, more than four times as old as Guan, was also struck by the youngster’s short game. “He played four strokes of unbelievable deftness” Crenshaw said, adding: “What it is to have 14-year-old nerves.”

All seems set fair for Guan then. He will compete more and more in men’s events, while continuing his schooling, and he will continue to improve because he is driven straight from school each evening to do several hours’ practice under the eye of his father. A champion in the making at 14; when will he become a champion?

This though is when one starts to worry. Is this the right strategy for him? Does he really have a childhood at the moment? Will he have one in the next few years? If he keeps up this programme of near total devotion to golf and school, when will he have time to kick over the traces that almost all children kick over at some time or other?

“What Guan did at the Masters was very, very dangerous” Henry Brunton, the former national golf coach of Canada was quoted as saying in The Wall Street Journal. Brunton cited research showing that 85% of age group champions as kids fail to stay near the top by the time they reach their 20s. “What if he had shot 90, which he easily could have except that he chipped and putted like a demon?” Brunton said. “What kind of shame would he have felt for himself and for his country? The carnage we see to talented kids at this age who reach the spotlight is pretty dismaying.”

We hardly need reminding of Ty Tryon, who earned his PGA Tour card at 17 but has since left the PGA Tour; of Michelle Wie, who made the cut at a US Open at the age of 13, turned pro at 15 and though she continued her studies at Stanford University is now back playing golf – not particularly well by her own standards; of Wayne Henry, who qualified for the Open at 15 and of whom little has been heard since.

Do we wish for Guan that he goes on and becomes another Tiger Woods, inspiring thousands in his home country to take up the game and winning a king’s ransom for himself along the way? All is going swimmingly at the moment but what if his talent shrivels in a year or so? What if he is injured in an accident, say, and can never repeat the success he is having now? How will he deal with that? Will he see it as success or failure? What if the pressure of being a prodigy sours him?

What I, a father of two and grandfather of five, wish for him is that he continues to play good golf while combining it with a childhood that seems to be absent at present and working hard at his schoolwork so that in seven years or so he will have finished university and can tackle the professional game, which is surely his aim. I want precocity, skill, excellence. But at the cost of a childhood? No.

July 2013

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine


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