• The Masters

Timing of Guan penalty the real Masters issue

Gene Wojciechowski | ESPN.com
April 13, 2013 « Live County Championship coverage | Chartbeat test »
Guan gets penalised

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Tianlang Guan was 14 years old when he began his round Friday. He was much, much older by the time he finished it.

We saw history - twice - during Guan's bizarre second round of The Masters. First, he became the first player, by all accounts, in the 77 times they have held this tournament, to be assessed a penalty for slow play. And second, he somehow squeezed under the cut line at the last moment, becoming the youngest player ever to do so at The Masters.

Guan, the amateur from Guangzhou, China, deserved better than to spend most of his afternoon in a room near the Augusta National grille dining area sweating out his weekend fate. And he definitely deserved better than a one-stroke penalty on the next-to-last hole of his round - in a major - at a place that has no record of ever assessing that kind of penalty.

One of the great Masters feel-good stories of all time almost got T-boned by the letter of the golf law. But then, the stopwatch of rules official John Paramor was wrestled to the ground by fate. Turns out the golf gods have a soft spot, after all.

"I made the cut," Guan wrote Friday evening on the Chinese version of Twitter. "I hope I can keep making miracles and dreams come true. And I would like to thank my parents and everyone who support, care about and help me."

You cannot make this up. You cannot make up a storyline that has a 14-year-old from China defy every imaginable odd and shoot an opening-round, one-over-par 73. You can't make up a scenario in which a rules official almost puts a cactus needle through Guan's Masters balloon on Friday.

And you can't make up how Guan's golf hero, Tiger Woods, was on his way to a lowwwww score, low enough to keep the teenager from making the cut. And then a gorgeous Woods wedge shot hits a flagstick, caroms into a pond in front of the par-five, No. 15 green, and that was that.

And, oh, Guan also had to live and die with every shot Jason Day hit on the closing holes. Had the Australian made a birdie on No. 17 - and he had his chance - or on 18, Guan's Masters was history.

Including the penalty stroke, Guan shot a three-over 75 on Friday, and is four-over for the tournament. Thanks to The Masters' 10-shot rule - if you're 10 strokes within the lead, you're in - Guan made the cut and instantly became the tournament's low amateur (none of the other five amateurs are playing on the weekend).

There's no cheering permitted in the press box, but several members of the visiting Chinese media could not help themselves when Day's attempt at a birdie on 18 missed the cup. And Guan's interpreter let out a yell when the scoreboard math became apparent: Guan was one of 61 players who had made the cut.

About five hours earlier, just after Guan had completed his round, nobody in the teenager's family-and-friends entourage was celebrating. Everybody, including Guan and one of his playing partners, two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw, was in a near state of shock.

"This isn't going to end up pretty, I don't think," a somber Crenshaw said. "I'm sick. I'm sick for him. He's 14 years old, we're playing - when you get the wind blowing out there, believe me, you're going to change your mind a lot. I am so sorry. I'm so sorry this has happened."

Nearly 90 minutes after Guan finished his round, he emerged from the locker room area and spoke to reporters. He took the high road. "I respect the decision they make, and that's what they should do," Guan said.

At the time, Guan was on the cut-line's edge. "If I can make it, I will be very grateful," he said. "If I don't, it's still a great week."

Guan had had time to compose himself before speaking with reporters. But according to those who saw him, Guan was near tears when he arrived at the scoring area and locker room. Can you blame him?

As best as Masters officials can tell, no player has ever been penalised for slow play at this tournament. The last time it happened in a major was the 2010 PGA Championship - to a pro. The last time it happened in a regular PGA Tour event was in 1995 - to a pro.

Guan respects decision

This was a 14-year-old from China who speaks English well, but not fluently. There are times when he doesn't understand every word or every nuance of the language. Sometimes, it takes him a little bit longer to converse. He and his caddie, Brian Tam, an Augusta National local, have worked together only a few weeks. What might take Woods and his caddie Joe LaCava 10 seconds to say while consulting on a shot, might take Guan and Tam double that time. And the seconds add up on a rules official's stopwatch.

"I don't think I'm too bad," Guan said when asked if he felt his pace of play warranted a penalty.

OK, a few things here: Chinese junior golfers have a reputation for slowish play. There's no denying that. Even Crenshaw admitted that Guan, at times, was too deliberate. And the other member of the threesome, Matteo Manassero, said that Guan occasionally "takes a little too long."

Got it. Rules are rules. But did you see the pace of play for everybody during Friday's rounds? Plus, pace of play is a horrific problem on tour and has been for years. But you're going to take your stand now? At a major? And against a teenage amateur from China?

And if you were going to penalise him Friday, then you should have done it Thursday. Crenshaw's caddie, Carl Jackson, told ESPN.com's Michael Collins that Guan's play was actually slower that day. But guess what? Guan said he received no warnings on Thursday.

And given the circumstances (it's a major … he's fighting to make the cut), to say nothing of Guan's inexperience in such situations (he was doing his eighth grade math homework two nights earlier), wouldn't it have been the more practical thing to give him a pass?

It was the middle of the 17th hole. He was almost done. Maybe you take him aside after the round and say, "Look, we could have penalised you today. We're going to explain in detail why you were slow and then we're going to tell you how to prevent it from happening again. But if it happens Saturday, you will be penalised."

Paramor, a respected rules official, was sympathetic to Guan's situation, but unmoved, nonetheless. "No, it's The Masters," said Paramor, who alerted Guan to slow-play issues on three different holes on the back nine before assessing the penalty on the par-four 17th. "It's The Masters competition."

The drama unfolded shortly after the teenager hit his tee shot on No. 17. That's when Buzzy Johnson, senior director of The Masters, approached Guan's father, Han Wen, who was standing just outside the ropes alongside the fairway. A Guan family friend, Peter Chen, was also there. Johnson asked Han Wen and Chen how well Tianlang understood English. Moments later, Paramor walked up and said, "[Tianlang] knows." That's when Han Wen was told to "talk to him" - him, being Tianlang.

His father tried to get his son's attention as Tianlang walked to his ball, but without success. By then, Tianlang was looking at his yardage book and debating with Tam about which way the wind was blowing. As the teenager neared the 17th green, Paramor informed Tianlang of the ruling. The decision clearly rattled Tianlang, who missed a makeable birdie putt on the hole.

Paramor made his way to the 18th fairway, about 75 yards or so from the tee box. He spoke to Chen, suggesting that Tianlang would be well served in the future to review video of his play and have rules officials work with him to improve his pace. He added, "I hope he makes three on the next hole and is playing in the tournament [Saturday]."

Meanwhile, Crenshaw was heard telling someone near the ropes, "We'll have an international incident. We just got penalised there for slow play."

Word quickly spread through the galleries that Guan had been assessed a penalty. "That's bullsh*t," one patron said. "You're kidding?" another said.

Chen caught up with Tianlang's father and relayed the news. Han Wen looked at his friend in disbelief and then clapped his hands in disgust. How Guan made par on the final hole, I have no idea. How he remained so composed with the media when his Masters-cut hopes had possibly been kneecapped, I have no idea.

Guan kept asking friends and family if he really had played that slow. He kept going over his shot routine on No. 17, but he never considered arguing against the penalty. He thought that would be disrespectful.

Guan was back at his rental house when he saw Day miss the birdie putt from off the green. He'll be back Saturday. Fate has a heart.

Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. This article first appeared on ESPN.com

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