Tiger Woods fears almost nothing in golf, but having 14-year-old Chinese prodigy Guan Tianlang set to become the youngest starter in Masters history has sent a shiver down his spine.
Guan had not been born when Woods won his first major title at the 1997 Masters, but the Asian schoolboy has been inspired by Woods and has spent the past month in Augusta preparing for his historic debut on Thursday.
“It’s frightening to think that he was born after I won my first Masters,” Woods said. “I mean, that’s just frightening.”
Woods, 37, played in his first Masters at age 19 and Italy’s Matteo Manassero, at age 16 in 2010, had been the youngest player in Masters history until now.
Guan qualified for his historic moment at Augusta National Golf Club by winning last year’s Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship in Thailand.
“I’m so excited,” Guan said. “I’m really happy to become the youngest player at the Masters.”
Guan, a native of Guangzhou, was born on October 25, 1998 and has intently studied Woods, who has served as an inspiration for young talent globally in collecting 14 major wins, four shy of Jack Nicklaus’ career record.
“It’s exciting that I have inspired kids to play and not just here in the States but obviously in China and around the world,” Woods said. “The game has become global. There are more countries represented on the PGA Tour than ever.
“It’s only going to increase, and we’re going to have a lot of players from countries that traditionally haven’t been into golf that are going to start to play this game at a high level.”
Helping that cause has been golf’s inclusion in the list of Olympic sports starting with the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Games.
“With the Olympics being involved, government funding is going to be involved trying to get these kids to that type of level, and that’s only going to make it better for the game of golf.”
That could put Woods and Guan, rivals this week for the green jacket symbolic of a Masters champion, on a collision course once again in three years for another epic prize — Olympic gold.
“It is every athlete’s dream to represent their home country to compete at the Olympics,” Guan told AFP last month. “It will be the greatest honor to me if I can represent China at the 2016 Olympics, and I will definitely keep working hard on it.”
Guan began playing at age four and won the world junior title by 11 shots in 2011 in San Diego. Last year, he became the youngest player in a European Tour event when he played the Volvo China Open at the age of 13 years and 177 days.
Facing the undulating greens of Augusta National and the intense spotlight of a major championship, Guan said making the 36-hole cut will be an achievement this week.
“It’s an honor for me to be able to play with the best golfers in the world,” Guan said. “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.”
But Guan already hungers for the ultimate prize of every elite golfer around the world.
“I have a dream since I was a little boy,” Guan said. “I wish, one day, I can win all four majors in one year.”
That’s a feat not even his idol Woods has achieved, although Woods did win four in a row, the 2000 US and British Opens and PGA Championship and the 2001 Masters for the “Tiger Slam.”
“At one point in my career to have all four of them on my coffee table in a row was a pretty neat feeling,” Woods said of golf’s major trophies.