ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOX) — Twice in the last three weeks the ‘men’s’ professional tour has been the playground of a fourteen-year-old middle schooler from China, Guan Tianlang. As he did at the Masters, the youngster edged under the cutline at New Orleans to stay around for the weekend. By all accounts the galleries have been large and the response has been the same, marveling at how someone so young (and small) can hang with the big boys for four days.
No doubt CBS is loving the sidebar for Saturday and Sunday this weekend when the tournament profile is much lower, and the Sunday leaderboard is more pedestrian.
It would be interesting to get an honest assessment from the players of what they think about losing a spot on the weekend to a player whose main role is to be a sideshow. Our own “youngster” on the PGA Tour, Scott Langley missed the weekend by one stroke. If the sidebar had not been in the field, he and a handful of players trying to make a career for themselves would have squeezed into the Saturday lineup and maybe found a way to make a run at some cash and Fed Ex points.
Bubba Watson, never shy about giving opinions, was asked about the teenager and showed a little edge at answering the same question repeatedly. “It’s the same question I had at Augusta,” he said. “You know, at 34 years old, I’ve hit enough bad shots where now I get to worry about them. But he doesn’t see that yet. Right now this is the first time in the tournament, and he’s enjoying every minute of it. I am too, but I worry. He’s 14, he doesn’t worry yet.”
So why should we worry? He moves the turnstiles a little. He bumps the ratings needle a smidge. Beat writers have their notebook set without even having to search the day’s events. Everybody wins. Or do they?
In his remarks Watson brought up the example of Michelle Wie. If some of you are more occasional visitors to golf, Wie was Guan Tianlang just about a decade ago. She even out fourteened the youngster from China by actually winning a national championship, the USGA Women’s Public Links. She then traveled the sidebar route, with a twist, by playing in a handful of PGA Tour events adding gender to the age phenomenon.
Wie is now 23 and has a couple of LPGA wins on her resume and collected a college diploma from Stanford along the way. She has been a member of the U.S. Solheim Cup team and cashed a boatload of endorsement deals. A success, except many who follow her think the Wie has pretty much advanced her star as bright as it can become. When many like World No. 1 Stacy Lewis were crossing the road to professional golf at 22 or 23, Wie at the same age is trying to find a game that will allow her to live up to the promise that got her a ticket to play with the big girls and boys before her age would suggest she should be there.
This week in South Carolina they are staging the Junior Invitational at Sage Valley. It is a relatively new event that brings together most of the top fifty junior golfers in this country and from around the world. It takes place only a few miles from the gates to Augusta National and Magnolia Lane where Guan Tianlang spent his days earlier in the month. It is the perfect venue for a precocious talent from mainland China, and he likely wouldn’t be a sidebar for those three days. He might even win, not make the cut. Instead he’s in New Orleans shooting 77 in the third round and too young to head to Bourbon Street.
Earl Woods may have done a lot of things wrong raising and exploiting his son Tiger, but he created the template for precocious golfers hoping to have a successful ‘career.’ Beat everybody your own age. Learn how to win. Then when you’re ready take on the world.
When Bubba talked about the teenager, he brought up the example of LeBron James and the crossover success he has had coming of out high school to the pros If I had been in the room with Bubba I would have asked him to name a player in modern professional golf who took the LeBron route and has produced a career of success on the PGA Tour.
Contact me when you have that answer.
Dan Reardon is Golf Editor at KMOX. He can be heard throughout the week on America’s Sports Voice.