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Golf Masters in Augusta: Little youngsters too green for the greens

Lhen he won his first Masters in 1997, Tiger Woods was 21 years and 3 months old. Before him, no champion so young had won this prestigious major title that until April 14, nearly a hundred players are competing for on the illustrious course of Augusta National, in the state of Georgia.

In 1997, Guan Tianlang was not even born. This week, the teenager from China simply becomes the youngest player in history to participate in the Masters at the tender age of 14 years and 5 months and thus pulverizes the precocity record established by the Italian Matteo Manassero, aged 16 years and 11 months in 2010. Tiger Woods was 19 when he discovered the legendary 18-hole course in 1995.

Born on October 25, 1998, Guan therefore has until 2019 included to do better than Woods in his hypothetical quest for the famous green jacket awarded each year to the Masters champion. Another maddening statistic: in the saga of the four major tournaments, only one player younger than him has lined up at the start of one of these renowned events: Young Tom Morris, a month younger than him, at the British Open… 1865 .

To trace his route to Augusta in 2013, Guan Tianlang, a high school student in Guangzhou where he lives, only needed one victory, that won last fall during the Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship in Thailand, which gave him automatically delivered the precious sesame. A few months earlier, he had already become at 13 the youngest participant in a tournament on the European circuit. His aura continued to grow, until the last days of training at Augusta during which he chained games with former winners like Ben Crenshaw, Tom Watson, Nick Faldo and, of course, Tiger Woods who took a bit of his time to give him some advice and congratulate him on a “it is goodin front of the media.

Without getting dismantled, Guan also confidently answered questions from journalists during a press conference where he showed off a fairly good level of English for his young age.

Teenagers even more precocious

At 14, Guan Tianlang cannot legitimately claim victory and the cut will be a very difficult objective to achieve due to his lack of length on a course that requires so much: he drives at 225m, which is too “fair on this kind of course where the Belgian Nicolas Colsaerts, one of the longest players on the circuit, sends his ball more than 290m.

But Guan is there to learn in a sport that gives the feeling of making more and more room for youth like another prodigy who is currently playing on the women’s circuit and at the highest level as far as she is concerned. . Indeed, a few days before her 16th birthday, the New Zealander of Korean origin Lydia Ko is in the process of speeding up history. In 2012, on the LPGA Tour, the American professional circuit, she won the Canada Open, becoming the youngest winner of such a tough event. And everyone believes that she has every chance of becoming the youngest winner of a major tournament in the short term, while the current “champion of the title” in the matter, the American Morgan Pressel, had imposed herself. at 18 years and 10 months at the Kraft Nabisco Championship in 2007.

Age is always a captivating statistic because it says so much about the evolution of a sport. While tennis was delivered, for example, to teenagers at the intersection of the 80s and 90s (Michael Chang winner at Roland Garros at 17 years and 3 months in 1989 a year before the triumph of Monica Seles at 16 and a half) , it is now reserved for thirtysomethings like Roger Federer and Serena Williams or players over 25 years old.

Having become very physical, the game, based practically on power and endurance, is no longer made for little boys or girls.

For its part, golf remains a discipline where the spectrum of victory remains very broad in terms of age, knowing that it is considered that male professionals generally reach their best performance between 30 and 35 years old. Tiger Woods remains, as we said, the youngest winner of the Masters at 21 when 11 years earlier, a 46-year-old man, Jack Nicklaus, had become the oldest champion in history at Augusta.

Nicklaus, winner at 46

In reality, there is no age rule, although experience remains a determining factor in golf. Four years ago, at the British Open, Tom Watson almost triumphed at the age of 59. Remember that the last two winners of the British Open, Darren Clarke and Ernie Els, were both over 40 years old.

Winning at over 35 is a relatively common occurrence in international golf, while doing so at just over 20 like Woods of old is a rarity. Jack Nicklaus, Severiano Ballesteros and Rory McIlroy were first crowned at 22 at completely different times, proving that Guan’s rise doesn’t mean much except that times have changed.

In the past, it was rare to see players, especially Americans, embark on a career before leaving the ranks of amateurs at the end of their university education. Today, this mold is broken with the globalization of a sport that is upsetting these habits. During the China Open, played in early May, a young player of… 12, Ye Wocheng, will thus find himself in the middle of participants, which will allow him to erase the previous record of… Guan Tianlang established in 2012.

Let’s not forget either that in 2012, another Chinese, Andy Zhang, also broke all precocity records at the US Open at 14 years and 6 months, demonstrating, once again, that if power is a factor in golf, the physique is less so because of the relatively “limited” effort required by this sport, which is also smoothed by the new material which attenuates certain possible defects.

Belly putters or elongated putters are, for example, an advantage given to players who have more putting problems. The youngest also know how to take advantage of these little extras provided by new technologies (balls, clubs, etc.) which notably increase their firepower tenfold.

But to become a champion, the alchemy is obviously complex as this very technical sport also relies (above all?) on the mind. More than elsewhere, the devil is in the details. Qualifying for a tournament like the Masters can be ‘easy’, navigating your way to the top is another matter. In 2004, Casey Wittenberg, a 19-year-old American, surprised all observers by finishing 13th in the Masters, the best result obtained by an amateur for 41 years. Praised at the time, he has since never really confirmed the immense hopes placed in him.

Second in the PGA Championship behind Tiger Woods in 1999 at the age of 19, the Spaniard Sergio Garcia, promised to the greatest victories, always runs after them despite a completely respectable career. Golf courses are sometimes longer or more tortuous than you imagine at the start. Guan Tianlang is probably aware of this. In France, more than half of licensees are over 55 years old. They too know the price of patience.

Yannick Cochennec

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