AUGUSTA, Ga. – No matter what the leaderboard says, Guan Tianlang leaves the Masters a winner.
Making history from the moment he stepped on the first tee Thursday, the 14-year-old made quite an impression on Augusta National. He finished the week without a double bogey, and never had a three-putt. (Not one that counted, anyway, though Guan was quick to point out he had one from off the green.)
With a 75 on Sunday, he finished the tournament at 12-over 300 — maybe not a threat to the leaders, but not the worst score, either.
Even a slow-penalty that nearly cost him the chance to play on the weekend couldn't spoil his fun.
"The whole week is great for me," Guan said. "I really enjoy it. I'm having fun, and hopefully I play some good golf."
Every day brought a new adventure for the eighth-grader from China, and Sunday was no different. After making birdies on 13 and 16 — he missed another on 15 when his 3-foot putt skirted the low side of the hole — his tee shot on 17 landed in a spectator's bag of souvenirs.
"I heard the sound of the ball hitting plastic and looked down," said Tom Lowndes, who was crossing the adjacent 15th fairway. "The ball was sitting right there on top of this hat."
Guan could only laugh when he saw his ball, smiling broadly as he reached into the bag to grab it. He consulted with a rules official — he's practically on a first-name basis with the whole crew after his slow play problems — and eventually took a drop a few yards back and out of the walkway. He went up and over the trees in front of him and landed in the fairway, but his third shot left him 20-plus feet short of the pin.
He got within 2 feet, and tapped in for a bogey.
"It's all right," he said. "A bogey (there) is not bad."
He two-putted from 40 feet to close out his first Masters with a par. Fans around the green gave him a standing ovation, and Guan waved his baseball cap in acknowledgment.
"I'm so happy, I'm so proud of him," said Guan's father, Han Wen. "In front of so many patrons, at such a great tournament, he played his game and stayed calm.
"I believe he will come here many times."
Could be. It isn't hard to see the polite teen as golf's next global icon. Fans were captivated by his precocious talent and calm maturity, and his baby face and sweetness — his mom still packs him snacks — only added to his appeal.
In what was sure to delight Masters officials — and anyone else with a stake in the golf game — there were more shouts of "Jia You!" (Chinese for "Let's go!") than "Get in the hole!" Several pockets of Chinese fans trailed Guan, almost all carrying bags stuffed with Masters merchandise.
Golf's popularity is still in its infancy in China, where it was considered an imperialist sport until recently. The tours, sponsors and television are all eager to tap into that massive market, and having a home-grown star like Guan would only help. The Chinese media contingent at the Masters more than tripled from last year, and Guan's followers on Weibo, China's version of Twitter, is already close to 30,000.
For now, however, it's back to being a kid.
Guan still goes to regular public school in his hometown of Guangzhou, with English, math and history his favorite subjects. (Asked what classes he took, Guan said, "China, you don't take classes, they give you classes.") He lugged six of his textbooks along with him to Augusta and, after letting his studies slide the last few days, he planned to hit the books Sunday night.
He and his parents initially planned to directly return to China, but that's now up in the air. He's received several invitations to play in other events, and he and his parents are trying to decide which ones to accept. He'd also like to try to qualify for the U.S. Open.
One thing Guan won't be doing any time soon is turning professional.
His father said Thursday that he wants Guan to stay an amateur because "amateurs have fun. Enjoy it." And Guan said he still has a lot to learn. Though he's got a short game any pro would envy, he's nowhere close to the big guys when it comes to distance. That's sure to change as he gets older and stronger.
"Remember, he's only 14," said Sandy Lyle, the 1988 Masters champion who was paired with Guan on Sunday. "In another three years, you'll probably see a huge difference in his length."
And, Guan hopes, the rest of his game, too.
"There's still a lot of things to learn to improve," he said. "So nothing to rush."
Well, maybe just one thing.
Asked when he thought he might like to win the Masters, he said:
"As soon as possible."