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Manassero Mans Up at Augusta

AUGUSTA, GEORGIA | He has followed Jack Nicklaus, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods in winning low amateur at The Masters but, by tomorrow, 16-year-old Matteo Manassero will be back at school.

Manassero, who is three years younger than Y.E. Yang when the latter hit his first golf shots, started as a tot. He was a particularly fussy eater whose mother one day discovered that golf could help. On those rare occasions when there was a tournament on the family television, her son would wolf down his food.

The teenager might describe Augusta to his chums as “a special place, a special tournament, a dream,” but he will not be regaling them with too many details of his week. “I don’t speak a lot about what I’ve done because I don’t like it,” said this modest young man. “I just say a few things.”

Not since Woods put in a first appearance at Augusta in 1995 can has an amateur generated such excitement. Apart from being the youngest-ever competitor, Manassero came with bags of charisma and an extraordinary record – winning the ’09 Amateur Championship at Formby and a share of 13th place in the Open Championship at Turnberry.

Manassero’s plan is to turn professional prior to the Italian Open in May. He will try and win his European player’s card over seven tournament invites and, if that does not work, he will head for the European Tour Qualifying School at the end of the year.

Had anyone suggested he might be too young? “No one that I’ve heard,” he said. During their practice round together, he asked Rory McIlroy about the hazards of turning pro as a teenager and Rory, probably very sensibly, kept his current concerns of having fallen out of love with the game to himself. Instead, he told him, “If you feel ready, there isn’t a problem.”

Never mind whether he ends up playing on the main tour or the Challenge version, Manassero will be doing a Michelle Wie in terms of carrying on with his education. In Italy, you stay in school until you are 19 and the teenager plans to graduate. “I may be home-schooled, I may do it on-line. We shall see.”

Though he achieved his long-held dream of making the halfway cut Friday night, Manassero’s Seve-like twinkle was absent. In truth, he could not have looked more wretched. On the one hand, he had returned a 76 after having played “perfectly” in his first-round 71. On the other, he was finishing at a time when it was not certain that plus-three would be good enough.

Manassero knew he was struggling from the moment he made a four at the short 16th. As his caddie, Alberto Binaghi, went to pluck his second putt, an eight-footer, from the cup, the ball stopped stubbornly on the lip. “Only one out of 10 of those wouldn’t have dropped,” said Binaghi, a former European Tour player.

There was a safe par at the 17th but on the 18th, Manassero hit a tree with his drive and was short and way left of the green in two. With one of his playing companions – Mike Weir rather than Lee Westwood – having problems in the trees, he had rather too long a wait before playing his third. When finally the time came, his easy rhythm went awry as he hit to the green’s far apron. Now, he simply had to get down in two more to be in with a chance of playing on the weekend. He did.

She recorded as many tournaments as she could in order to show them at meal times, and it was not too long before the child’s appetite – for golf, that is – was unquenchable. His parents would take him to a small driving range in Verona and, at the age of 3 or 4, he attended the Italian Open where he was introduced to Seve Ballesteros. The two engaged in a chipping contest, with Seve feigning exasperation as the little one holed a chip to beat him.

It is difficult to imagine that Manassero’s schoolwork will have his full attention this week. Almost certainly, his mind will still be at Augusta, hopping from the Crow’s Nest, where the amateurs talked of the nerves they might feel on the first tee, to the moment he received his silver trophy. And in terms of what happened on the golf course, to his outward 34 on Saturday and his thriller of an opening 71.

When someone put it to him that a 16-year-old was not supposed to break par at Augusta, he broke into the broadest of grins. “The way I played,” he chuckled delightedly, “it was not that difficult.”


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