AUGUSTA, Ga. — As Guan Tianlang prepared to hit his second shot into the difficult 17th green at Augusta National Golf Club on Friday, he stepped over his ball, then stepped back, felt the wind and switched his club.
Guan is 14, the youngest player in Masters history, a symbol of Augusta National’s desire to tap into the money and population in his native China and spread the game. As he made that swing, he was looking to make the cut and play through the weekend in, arguably, the world’s most prestigious golf tournament.
But after Guan’s ball landed softly on the green, a man in a blue blazer approached him in the fairway. He showed Guan a book. “The Rules of Golf” is the Bible of the sport, and sinners are subject to punishment, regardless of the stage. In contemplating the breeze that befuddled many of the world’s best golfers in Friday’s second round, Guan had taken too much time, after having been warned repeatedly to pick up his pace.
“I know the rules pretty good,” Guan said later, in an interview with ESPN. “But I think my routine is pretty good too, but just the wind switching, so the weather is not good today, so I feel I had to make that decision.”
For the first two days of a tournament in which the game’s most recognizable figure, Tiger Woods, shot to the lead, Guan may have become the most compelling story. His age, his heritage, his potential — and the aplomb with which he handled a dicey situation Friday — all left galleries buzzing. His response to the rare one-shot penalty for playing too slowly: “I respect their decision. This is what they can do.”
“I don’t know how I would have been able to handle the enormity of the situation as a 14-year-old, mentally,” said Australian Adam Scott, who has been in the international golfing eye since his early 20s. “Obviously, he can play very, very good golf at 14, better than most. But I just don’t know how you handle the pressure and the nerves at that age.”
Guan, rules official John Paramor explained, had repeatedly violated the slow-play policy and had been warned two separate times. According to Rule 6-7, the first player in a group has 60 seconds to take his swing, the second player 40 seconds. Guan, Paramor said, took 50 seconds to take his swing at 17. And at that moment, Paramor issued Guan a one-shot penalty.
The cut that was determined later Friday afternoon — the top 50 players and those within 10 shots of the lead proceed to the final two rounds over the weekend — fell at 4-over-par 148. With the penalty stroke, Guan’s score: 4-over 148. He survived, despite Paramor’s ruling.
“That’s my job,” Paramor said later. “That’s what I do.”
Yet the extraordinary set of circumstances made Paramor’s decision the focal point of a beautiful, windswept day at Augusta — and it meant Guan spent the afternoon, waiting and wondering whether his tournament was over or would continue.
“This isn’t going to end up pretty, I don’t think,” said two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw, who played the first two rounds with Guan. “I’m sick. I’m sick for him. He’s 14 years old. . . . When you get the wind blowing out here, believe me, you will change your mind a lot. I’m sorry.”
Perhaps no issue in golf frustrates professionals and amateurs as much as slow play, which can bring rounds to a near halt at both the Masters and a local municipal course. Masters rounds this week have exceeded five hours, and less than two hours after play began in Friday’s second round, groups were stacked up on the fourth tee, waiting perhaps 20 minutes between shots.
Guan, though, found himself in the middle of this issue on the game’s grandest stage. A deliberate player, for sure, he had impressed galleries and competitors alike when he opened with a 73 Thursday, a round that put him within three shots of Woods and two of Phil Mickelson, who have seven Masters titles between them. By the time Guan walked to the 12th tee Friday — after making a beautiful up-and-down at the difficult par-4 11th — Crenshaw was making a sweeping motion with his arms, as if introducing him to the gallery and saying, “How ’bout this kid?”
“Very, very impressive,” Crenshaw said. “. . . I see nothing but straight up from here. I think he’ll grow more. He’s only 14. But it’s obvious he has a great love for it.”
By that time, though, Guan’s group was well behind the threesome in front of it, a condition referred to in tournament play as being “out of position.” According to Paramor, Guan’s group was warned about its status on the 10th hole. Guan was first put on the clock on the 12th. And after his second shot at the par-5 13th, he was warned for the first time.
At the par-3 16th, Guan faced a long, difficult downhill putt that Crenshaw called “the most diabolical putt you can face.” Guan, who actually had to face away from the hole to play the correct amount of break, considered it carefully, and struck a solid putt.
“I’m gonna say this,” Crenshaw said. “Anybody would take time in order to get up and hit that putt.”
Yet as Guan walked to the 17th tee, Paramor issued his second warning. The next violation would be a penalty.
Still, such a measure is almost never enforced, even as players have complained repeatedly about the pace of play on the PGA Tour. The last time rules officials assessed a one-shot penalty was in 1995, to Glen Day at the Honda Classic.
But after Guan struck his shot into the 17th, Paramor approached. The two had a lengthy, almost animated conversation as they walked to the green. Eventually, Guan putted out. He took four shots on the hole, but Matteo Manassero, the third player in the group who was keeping Guan’s score, wrote down 5.
“We all feel sorry,” Mannasero said. “But this is the way professional golf goes. . . . By the time he comes here [as a pro], he’s going to be ready, and he’s going to have fixed that particular thing.”
When Guan finished with a nice par at the 18th, Crenshaw approached, and patted him sympathetically on the shoulder. Guan shook his head solemnly, then looked skyward.
“I am so sorry,” Crenshaw said afterward. But hours later, there was nothing about which to feel sorry. The youngest player in Masters history will return for the weekend, two more rounds of experience ahead.