SHANGHAI (AP) — Two years ago, 14-year-old Guan Tianlang made history by becoming the youngest golfer ever to make the cut at the Masters.
On Friday, before far fewer spectators, Guan completed his second round at the China Open at 3 over overall and will miss the weekend.
The Chinese golfer has had a quiet couple of years since his star turn at Augusta. He still makes a sartorial statement on the course — he wore neon pink and lime green pants this week in Shanghai — but he’s no longer chased by crowds of fans or media. He’s still developing his game at junior tournaments and going to school part-time.
“My results are not great in these couple of years, they could be better,” he said. “But I feel like I’m more confident and my game is a lot better now.”
It may be years before Guan gets another crack at the Masters, but there are plenty of other young Chinese who are seeking their break-out moments. They are being groomed as future major and Olympic champions, the result of a serious investment of money and resources into developing the game at the junior level.
A major part of this effort was the opening in 2012 of the $80 million Nanshan national training center, where children as young as six learn how to strike the ball with drivers nearly as tall as them, and the most talented teenagers spend their summers trying to take their games to the next level.
Li Haotong is one of the most exciting prospects to emerge in recent months.
Just 19, the lanky golfer from Hunan province ran off three victories on the PGA Tour of China last autumn to qualify for the U.S.-based Web.com Tour, then nearly became the youngest winner in that tour’s history, taking a one-stroke lead into the final round at his debut tournament in Panama before faltering.
“When I play in China, if I shoot 3 or 4 under, I feel kind of OK, but on the Web.com Tour, I have to try on every shot,” Li said through a translator in Shanghai, where he was tied for fourth at 5 under after two rounds. “Even if I’m 3 or 4 under, I still have to play every hole like it’s the last hole. That’s the big difference.”
Last week, Li came up short of winning his first European Tour title, losing to Thailand’s Kiradech Aphibarnrat in a playoff at the Shenzhen International. The runner-up finish took him to No. 125 in the world rankings, just 19 spots below Tiger Woods.
Li’s goal at the beginning of the year was keeping his Web.com card, but now he believes he has a shot of earning a U.S. PGA Tour card, too.
His success has been an inspiration for his peers. Cao Yi is chasing a Web.com card, and spending time training in Florida with his South African coach Andrew Park. He’ll be at Nanshan this summer, too. Cao shot 72 on Thursday, and missed the cut at 5 over.
“Haotong, he’s the role model now. Everyone’s trying to chase him, especially me and the other young players because we used to practice together and play together,” said the 24-year-old Cao, who grew up in Canada and speaks fluent English.
“If you see his results from the last couple of years, you feel like, well, maybe I can do the same thing.”
Zhang Jin, 19, turned pro six months ago, and is still trying to adapt to the pressure. He missed the cut in Shenzhen at 10 over, but he’s performed well in Shanghai, sitting in a tie for 15th at 2 under heading into the weekend.
He believes young Chinese have the fundamentals down, but need more focus on the mental aspect of the game.
“Last year, I do a lot of work on my swing, and this year I am more focused on playing the shot,” he said, also in English. “Right now, a lot of Chinese people are thinking about the mechanics. They’re not thinking about how to play golf.”
As for Guan, he might head to the U.S. this summer, but isn’t sure where he’ll play. He just wants to take things slowly.
“I’m not going to play too much,” he said.
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