BANGKOK – Chinese prodigy Guan Tianlang, who turned 14 last week, bagged eight birdies in a sizzling six-under-par 66 to lead after the first round of the fourth Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship in Thailand.

Daniel Pearce of New Zealand is two behind after carding a 68 over the testing 7,231-yard layout at Amata Spring Country Club in Chonburi, outside Bangkok. Natipong Srithong of Thailand, Senapaa Chikkarangappa of India and Korean Lee Soo-min, last year’s runner-up, each shot 69.

Japanese star Hideki Matsuyama, Asia’s No. 1 amateur, opened his bid to win a third straight title with a 71, leaving him in a share of 10th.

The slightly built Guan took centre stage with a stunning afternoon round. Opening with two birdies, he picked up further shots at holes four, six and seven, offset by a bogey at five, to make the turn in 32. He went as low as seven-under after birdies at 11, 13 and 15 before dropping a shot on the closing hole.

“My putting was fantastic today. The course is outstanding and I felt really good,” said Guan, making his event debut in the 120-strong field, which features 36 nations.

“I don’t hit the ball that far, so I really had to take all my chances today. I only hit the ball about 250 yards off the tee on these fairways, so it’s not easy.”

Last July, Guan romped to an 11-stroke victory in the 11-12 division in the Junior World Golf Championships in San Diego before becoming the youngest-ever winner of the China Amateur Open in November. At this year’s China Open in April, the Guangzhou-based schoolboy made global headlines by becoming the youngest player to compete in a European Tour event.

Boosted by such experiences, Guan showed impressive composure against older players at Amata Spring, a day after it was formally announced that China would host next year’s Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship.

“I was quite relaxed and fresh, as I haven’t played since the World Amateur Team Championship in Turkey early last month. Also, I know the guys I played with today, so it was fun,” said Guan, who was supported by his parents throughout the round.

“My goal is to win and go to the Masters, but I really don’t think it will be easy. I would say Matsuyama and Pan Cheng-tsung are two of the favourites here. I’m not thinking too far ahead as there are so many good players here.”

Pearce set the early pace in searing heat and was as low as six-under before bogeying two of his last three holes.

The tall 24-year-old, who played in the 2009 and 2010 championships, started on the back nine, picking up a shot at 11 before bagging a hattrick of birdies from 14-16. He also birdied 18 to make the turn in 31 and picked up a further shot at the par-five second.

“I just came into this week to enjoy it, so you always play well when you’re enjoying yourself. It’s just great to be here and I’m just trying to play well and see what happens,” said Pearce, who arrived in Thailand for the first time on Sunday night.

“I really enjoy the course. For some people it’s quite long, but I hit the ball a bit longer than most, I guess. I thought the course was set up perfect for my game. The greens are rolling great and I’m starting to come into some form with the putter.”

Pearce believes he and the other five New Zealanders in the field could be challenging on Sunday and potentially end the East Asian dominance of the event.

There’s definitely a chance we could have a Kiwi winner. We’ve got six great golfers here and any of them could lift the trophy,” said Pearce, who’s currently living on his parents’ farm in Ashburton, southwest of Christchurch.

“I’m in good form and recently played well in a professional event in New Zealand. I’ve been working very hard on my game this year, and I’ve had some good results, which has been nice.”

The Asia-Pacific Amateur Championship offers the winner an invitation to the Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club, while the champion and runner(s)-up earn spots in International Final Qualifying (IFQ) for The Open Championship.

Organised by the Asia Pacific Golf Confederation (APGC), the Masters Tournament and The R&A, the championship is the world’s most televised amateur golf tournament, aired in more than 150 countries, and will feature two hours of live broadcast on each of the four days and a 30-minute highlights show.

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