Chinese teen golfer Guan Tianling grows more comfortable with adulation

By
Justin Bergman
Associated Press

Series: European Tour

SHENZHEN, China -- One year after his stunning debut at the Masters, Chinese 15-year-old golfer Guan Tianlang is growing accustomed to being in the spotlight.

Guan looked composed and confident as he shot a 1-under 71 in the first round of the China Open on Thursday in front of a gallery that grew to more than 100 spectators midway through the front nine.

The teenager's star has risen quickly in China since his breakthrough at Augusta National, where at the age of 14, he became the youngest golfer to make the cut at the Masters.

At this time last year, he had about 25,000 followers on Sina weibo, China's version of Twitter -- not bad for a high school student. Now he's up to 2,700,000, and counting.

At the China Open on Thursday, Guan, still an amateur, drew as many onlookers as the No. 3-ranked player in the world, Swede Henrik Stenson, playing two groups ahead of him.

Walking to the 5th tee, several young women raced ahead of him on the path and turned quickly to snap photos with their camera phones as he strolled by. A nicely hit approach shot was greeted with calls of `Nice shot' in Mandarin on the 5th hole; a near-miss on a birdie putt minutes later elicited a disbelieving groan from the crowd.

Through it all, Guan appeared unfazed by the attention, unlike his far more experienced playing partner, Morten Orum Madsen of Denmark, who barked at the crowd at one point for taking photos during his swing.

"I think it feels good to play at home," said Guan, who is from nearby Guangzhou. "It's not far away from my hometown and (I'm) used to the conditions here so I feel good."

Despite his recent celebrity, Guan has tried to strike a balance between his blossoming golf career and being a normal teenager.

He spends most of the Chinese school year in class and takes his schoolwork with him when he's on the road so he doesn't fall too far behind.

Last year, he played in four PGA Tour events after the Masters, making the cut once at the Zurich Classic, where he finished 71st. He didn't repeat his title at the Asia-Pacific Amateur in October, which means he missed a repeat performance at Augusta National this year.

He's playing a tournament in Guangzhou next week and then plans to take a few months off to get back to classes. He's in no rush to turn pro, either.

"I think definitely I'm on the right progress. Last year, I have a great tournament (at the Masters) and have a lot of great experience, and starting with this year, we think we don't want to play too much tournaments at first," he said. "I think it's pretty good to not playing too much tournaments to focus on improving myself."