AUGUSTA, Ga. - It's hard not to like Tianlang Guan, the 14-year-old eighth-grader from China who has done the unthinkable the last two days at the Masters.
Here he was, a kid who was working more on homework than wedge work earlier this week, playing with golf's greats, standing among legends past and present. At Augusta National, no less, the teenager with the sparkling smile and dazzling short game was the talk of golf's biggest tournament.
Charlie Rymer, the likable commentator on The Golf Channel who was born in Cleveland, Tenn., before his family moved to a Charlotte suburb when he was in elementary school, was overwhelmed by Guan.
"I don't think you can overstate it, really," Rymer said Friday. "I was just talking with Greg Norman, who is helping with the Olympic golf effort in China, and he said it's very likely that more people in China watched this kid play golf Thursday than the people in U.S. who watched any of the Masters yesterday."
Of course they were watching. We all were. There would be plenty of time this weekend for winners and green jackets and Tiger Woods and all the rest. Guan was the story that made everyone smile and shake their heads.
Well, until it didn't. Until the pressure and the winds and the challenge increased and Guan slowed his pace to the point that his group fell behind the others. He was put on the clock and then warned about keeping up and ultimately was assessed a one-shot penalty for slow play.
Augusta National's statement on Guan's violation was as direct as an uphill putt and as cold as a bad bounce: "Tianlang Guan was assessed a one-shot penalty for violation of Rule 6-7 of the Rules of Golf and the Tournament's Pace of Play Policy. His group ... was deemed out of position on No. 10. Guan began being timed on Hole 12 and received his first warning on Hole 13 after his second shot. In keeping with the applicable rules, he was penalized following his second shot on the 17th hole when he again exceeded the 40-second time limit by a considerable margin."
Was the penalty warranted? Was it child-prodigy abuse? Maybe they could have put him in timeout or in one of the sand boxes on 18?
Still, despite the possibilities -- imagine the reaction Woods would have unleashed in a similar situation -- Guan handled the situation as smoothly as he's handled every hurdle here.
"I respect the decision they make," said Guan, who finished Friday with 74 strokes and a 75 on his card. He was 4 over par after 36 holes, teetering along the cut line as various leaders in the fading afternoon sun bounced around 5 and 6 under. Jason Day's birdie on No. 16 moved him to 6 under with two holes to play and stretched the importance of the penalty.
Day finished the second round with back-to-back pars, and Guan made history as the youngest player to make the cut at a major championship, despite the penalty.
It's how it should have been, of course. Rules violations are non-negotiable in golf: That's part of its lore and charm and truth. But pace of play is a problem in front of everyone, something Guan noted by saying, "I think they should do it with respect to everyone."
He's right, of course, but that shouldn't surprise any of us. He's been 100 percent right-on all week.
He is a 14-year-old amazingly competing at the highest level, a complete player overcoming his lack of physical strength with a mental toughness way beyond his years. Want an example? After being handed the one-shot penalty on the 17th hole, Guan calmly parred the trigonometry-tough 18th, a 465-yard uphill par-4 playing into a wind strong enough to keep flags stiff and golfers confused.
"I'm sorry. I'm so sorry this has happened," said two-time Masters champ Ben Crenshaw, who played with Guan in the first two rounds. "It's not going to be pretty. ... It shouldn't cost him in the raw numbers, but it could and it would be worse if it did."
Whether you agree with the penalty or not, the fact that pace of play is being discussed today is a very good thing for the game.
If Augusta National is willing to do it, every other golf organization from the R&A and the PGA Tour to the Chattanooga TPC series to the Signal Mountain junior league should take notice.
Was it harsh? Probably, considering the difficult conditions that caused everyone to gauge and re-gauge, check and re-check clubs and distances and lines. And Guan was assuredly not the only violator.
"There's no question he played slowly at times," Crenshaw said. "But he was working things out ... and it's pretty difficult for somebody to do that in a tournament like this with the conditions the way they are. It's going to happen, but I'm really sorry. This is not pretty."
Crenshaw's angst was before it became official that Guan made the weekend and will finish as the low amateur at this year's Masters. This being Augusta National, things worked out swimmingly for the club officials. They levied their penalty and the kid still made the cut. Call it having your wait and beating it, too.
Even if the penalty had cut Guan's tournament at 36 holes, the teenager with the endless potential and professional polish looked to be a future fixture of the game.
Here's another view of the discussion. Guan simultaneously represented arguably the two biggest hurdles of today's golf -- getting young people playing and improving an ever-slowing pace of play.
"Nothing fazes the kid," Rymer said long before those words proved to be completely clairvoyant. "And for a 14-year-old who isn't really physically developed, to come to such a big golf course and shoot better than average score of the field ..."
Rymer just shook his head and didn't finish that sentence, but he didn't have to.
"I hope we can celebrate the story -- and it's a great story -- without putting these huge expectations on the kid," Rymer said Friday morning. "I don't care if he shoots a 100 today. He showed the world he's a gutsy kid who can really play."
And can handle himself in every situation -- in the game and its perception and its enforcement. He played with champions and acquitted himself famously.
He won't win a green jacket this week, but there's no doubt this kid's a winner.
Contact Jay Greeson at email@example.com