Guan Tianlang, Golf’s Young Master

14 years old, Guan Tianlang was the youngest person to play the Masters—arguably the most prestigious sporting event in the world—by more than two years. Mark Blinch/Reuters

There’s perhaps no better way to understand golfer Guan Tianlang’s accomplishment at the 2013 Masters this April than to let the cold, hard numbers tell the story:

At all of 14 years old, he was the youngest person to play the Masters—arguably the most prestigious sporting event in the world—by more than two years. He was 18 years younger than Adam Scott, the eventual winner, and more than 20 years younger than the average age of the field. His 58th-place finish in a field of more than 100 not only made him the best-finishing amateur in the tournament, but left him ahead of 13 different major winners. And all this after he was assessed a one-stroke penalty for slow play.

Guan had traveled from China to prepare for the Masters three weeks before the tournament, earlier than the other competitors, and played dozens of practice rounds with a local caddie carrying his bag.

“I tell you what: he hits it good. Think about it. He’s not even in high school yet,” said Tiger Woods, who played a practice round with Guan, at a press conference. That feeling was echoed by Gary Player, another golfing legend: “It is just incredible. If I had been in his position when I was 14, I would have been in tears.”

Guan may be the latest young phenomenon to rock the golfing world, but he’s by no means the first. Indeed, in a game where players can continue to compete at the top level well into their 40s and 50s, those who find themselves immortalized in the game’s history books often burst into the limelight, like Guan, at an early age. Golf certainly isn’t the only sport where future icons can make headlines at a young age, but it is among the friendliest to younger players. In golf, it doesn’t matter how old you are: if you’re good enough to qualify, you can play.

Jack Nicklaus was the first prodigy in the post–World War II era. During his three and a half years at Ohio State, Nicklaus won two U.S. Amateur Championships and an NCAA tournament, and shot the lowest score by an amateur in the U.S. Open, finishing second overall in 1960 at 20 years old, just two shots behind the eventual winner. As a pro, he went on to win 18 majors—more than anyone in history.

Woods cemented his status as golf’s next protégé between the ages of 15 and 20, when he won an unprecedented six consecutive USGA championships, the biggest tournaments for amateur golfers in the U.S. Opting to turn pro rather than finish his final two years at Stanford, Woods has so far won 77 PGA Tour events and 14 major championships, all by age 37.

And now the latest crop of young golfing protégés is beginning to emerge. Rory McIlroy, a 23-year-old from Northern Ireland, already has two majors to his name and has been dueling Woods for the No. 1 spot in the world rankings. Twenty-six-year-old Keegan Bradley is one of the brightest young American talents, earning that reputation with his first major victory in 2011. And, of course, there’s Guan. But so far, he’s staying modest.

“Everything needs to improve,” said Guan about his game. “The whole week is great for me. I’m really enjoying it and having fun, and hopefully I played some good golf.”