Guan Tianlang wins legions of fans – just not in China

For all the attention lavished on Guan Tianlang last week, here’s a bit of context: his Weibo followers have swelled from about 20,000 a week ago to 28,000. Compare that to Chinese tennis star Li Na who has more than 21 million fans.

Numbers in China are notoriously hard to check, especially on a place like Weibo where fake and inactive accounts vastly outnumber real ones, but the point is clear: Guan barely registers on China’s sporting radar despite last week’s heroics. In fact, my guess is that his week at Augusta raised his international profile far more than his Chinese one, and that tells you everything about how far the game of golf still has to go here.

Guan Tianlang getting some love on the homepage
Guan Tianlang getting some love on the homepage

That said, when the current crop of youngsters turn pro and start winning things – as I think they will – sports fans in China will take notice.

Here’s my Sports Talk column from Monday, talking about how impressive Guan’s composure was – both on and off the course – despite the asinine rules committee at Augusta (and European Tour rules official John Paramor in particular) making a mockery of the sport by penalizing Guan for slow play.

It should come as little surprise that the golf club notorious for its racist and sexist past made another monumentally bad decision last week. Well, two actually.

Late on Friday, 14-year-old Chinese sensation Guan Tianlang was given the first slow-play penalty in the 77-year history of the Masters, held each year at Augusta National golf club. Yes, he was playing slowly, but so were dozens of other players, and they’ve been doing it for decades. To single out one player – a teenager trying to make history – was farcical. “Rules are rules”, Tiger Woods said afterwards, but you either have to turn a blind eye across the board, or penalize everyone.

Then on Saturday morning, the gutless rule committee declined to disqualify Tiger himself after he had taken a drop in the wrong place and signed for the wrong score – a clear disqualification offence. But the officials waived this off by disingenuously invoking a new rule, which was designed to protect against something else entirely.

By the logic that Guan should have been given the benefit of the doubt, then Tiger should have been too. After all, he genuinely thought he was acting in accordance with the rules, and the advantage he gained was minimal.

But that would mean maintaining the spirit of sportsmanship and fair play, except in golf, there’s no spirit – just rules – and that’s where the problem comes in. If you’re the committee in charge of the Masters, and you take the high road and argue that golf is better than other sports, then you have to be consistent. You can’t make an example of a teenager and then let off the game’s biggest star just because you feel like it.

Guan Tianlang wins the Silver Cup as low amateur at the Masters
Guan Tianlang wins the Silver Cup as low amateur at the Masters

Augusta was lucky that Guan’s penalty didn’t cost him the chance to play on Saturday and Sunday. If it had, there could have been “an international incident”, in the words of Guan’s playing partner and two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw.

Let’s hope Guan focuses on the many positives from his Augusta experience as he continues his development into one of the best young players in the world. He acted with class, telling reporters he respected the decision to penalize him, and his composure both on and off the course won him legions of new fans.

When asked about the Tiger ruling, Guan innocently replied “Rules are rules”. Which they are, of course, just not if you’re Tiger.

One quick link to finish…I’d missed this earlier but it’s good: memes making fun of Guan’s slow-play penalty from Friday.

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