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Teen Wonders On Display In Shanghai

The best of this week’s fireworks could come from the Sheshan International GC in China where Matteo Manassero, Noh Seung-Yul and Ryo Ishikawa, the teenage sensations of the moment, will be teeing up alongside Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson in the WGC-HSBC Champions. Though there have been occasions when two of the youngsters have played in the same event, this will be the first tournament to feature all three.

Such a state of affairs has nothing to do with any judicious use of wild cards on the part of the sponsors. The 17-year-old Manassero seized his place by winning the Castello Masters in Spain, while Noh and Ishikawa, both 19, qualified via their respective victories in the Malaysian Open and the Crowns Championship.

With Woods having been plucked from his high chair to hit his earliest shots, there is every reason to suppose that these young things were gripping a golf club at much the same time as they first wrapped their hands around a parent’s finger. Yet, the fact is that their golfing beginnings were not forced upon them in any way.

Italians love to tell of how Matteo’s introduction to the sport was down to his early reluctance to eat. His parents were in despair until they discovered that the infant would gobble everything in sight when golf was on the television.

With televised golf in short supply in Italy, they started to record the various tournaments – something which led to their son identifying favourite golfers and foodstuffs at the one time. Seve Ballesteros was his great hero, with the relationship enhanced when the then 3-year-old Matteo was introduced to the old champion at an Italian Open.

By the time he was 12, Matteo was virtually out on his own in the Italian junior arena and, at 16, he was the youngest winner of the British Amateur. That feat qualified him for the British Open at Turnberry where, would you believe, he won the Amateur medal and finished in a share of 13th place overall.

Noh, for his part, started at 7. With the family home backing on to the sea in Seoul, he would knock balls along the sand with a child’s set of clubs. “Then slowly I became better at it,” he explained. “During summer, I would hit balls on the beach from 4:30 to 6:30 in the morning before going to school and, when classes were over, I would rush to the driving range.”

Noh was 14 when he won the Korean Boys’ championship and the Korean Amateur in the same summer. And 17 when he turned professional and bolted from the blocks with three runner-up spots in his first five starts.

Ishikawa’s early feats were seemingly still more far-fetched. Having first accompanied his father to the driving range at the age of 6, he was 15 when he was invited to play alongside the Japanese Tour professionals for a first time, with the event in question the Munsingwear Open KSB. To all-round astonishment, he came out on top.

Since then, Ishikawa has added seven more titles, with his 58 in the last round of the Crowns a score to have made a worldwide stir. Those professionals who know what it is to have screwed up when on the verge of breaking 60 were quick to ask if the boy was immune to nerves.

The answer was not quite but nearly. ”I got a little excited,” he said, “but the excitement was balanced by a feeling of calm control. I believed I could do it.”

All three of the teenagers have great temperaments. Noh puts his down to his coach, Choi Mying-ho, whose early advise was that he should block everything out when he was performing under pressure. “It was to be just me and the golf ball. I adopted this approach and it has become second nature to me.”

Matteo has what it takes to be a bit fiery but he kept his emotions perfectly in check in the Castello Masters. Having found the right gear to overtake England’s Gary Boyd with a run of three successive birdies, he was able to enjoy himself over the last couple of holes as he won by four from Ignacio Garrido.

It will be interesting to see if the three teenagers gravitate towards each other this week. They may be separated by a three-way language barrier but, were they to play a practice round in each other’s company, there is no question that their interaction would have less to do with attempts at run-of-the-mill conversation than replying to one brilliant shot with another.

Most of the older hands in the tournament will be wishing that the trio were safely locked up at school or college. That, though, does not begin to apply to the 46-year-old Miguel Angel Jimenez.

It was after he won the early-September Omega European Masters in Crans-sur-Sierre that the Spaniard told of the fun he is having in matching each generation in turn.

“In the beginning,” he said, “I was competing alongside players like Seve, Nick Faldo, Langer, Norman, Woosnam and Torrance. Then came the Darren Clarkes, the Thomas Bjorns and the Lee Westwoods – and next Rory McIlroy and his age-group.”

“Now,” he said, in what was a decidedly timely announcement, “I’m waiting for the next lot.”


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