Tiger Woods was practicing at the Masters driving range on Monday when up walked 14-year-old Chinese prodigy Guan Tianlang, greeting the superstar player who had inspired him to start golfing.
Guan asked Woods to autograph his cap and in addition to doing that, Woods invited Guan along for an afternoon back-nine Augusta National practice round with Dustin Johnson, a session in which Woods taught Guan some Masters secrets.
“He hits it good,” Woods said. “I showed him a few of the pins, helped him a little bit. The kid is 14. He’s good. We had a good time.”
After playing fabled Amen Corner — his favourite holes on the course — with the 14-time Major champion he dreams of emulating, Guan spent another half hour on the putting green with Woods.
“Every time I play with him, I feel a lot better and give myself some confidence,” Guan said. “It's very good.”
They skipped balls together across the surface of the water at the par-3 16th hole and finished as the shadows began to fall across the course.
Much the way Woods has set a goal of surpassing the 18 career Major titles of boyhood hero Jack Nicklaus, Guan dreams of a calendar-year Grand Slam, a feat not even Woods has managed even though he has won four Majors in a row.
“He can’t play for his high school team because he’s in middle school and now he’s in the Masters,” Woods said. “That’s pretty amazing.”
Guan had played alongside Woods in a pro-am event in China and a practice round at Shanghai, but Monday”s Masters practice session with the World No. 1 came after a morning round with two-time Masters winner Ben Crenshaw.
“He told me a lot,” Guan said of Crenshaw. “We really enjoyed it on the golf course.”
Guan and Woods are the week’s scene stealers, the Chinese teen because he will replace Italy’s Matteo Manassero as the youngest player in Masters history. Manassero was 16 when he played in 2010.
Woods is a favourite to capture a fifth green jacket this week after winning this year at Torrey Pines, Doral and Bay Hill to vault past Rory McIlroy into the top ranking for the first time since October of 2010.
“He’s hitting it nicely,” US veteran Steve Stricker said on Monday, a day after a practice round with Woods. “Looks like he’s got a ton of confidence in that putter too, which you need to go around here.
“It looks like he’s comfortable in his game and I expect him to be in the mix come Sunday for sure.”
Woods has not won a Major since the 2008 US Open and has not captured the Masters since 2005, but past leg injuries have healed and Woods’ infamous 2009 sex scandal is old news, unlike his new girlfriend, US ski star Lindsey Vonn.
“He’s happy and he’s relaxed and he just feels good about what he’s doing with his game,” Stricker said. “And it’s showing in his attitude, too.”
Even a Masters newcomer like Belgium’s Nicolas Colsaerts knows better than to dismiss Woods at Augusta National.
“He’s one of the players who knows the course like the back of his hand. He knows what shots to hit here and there,” Colsaerts said.
“But there are so many young players now ruling world golf.
“Tiger is always a factor. He’s always going to be a favourite in any tournament he plays, of course. But there are so many other players that can play this course.” — AFP