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Sergio, Matteo and Mirrors

PALM HARBOR, FLORIDA | If the thought didn’t occur to you that Matteo Manassero – all joy and wonderment and free-flowing talent – wasn’t supposed to remind you of a certain someone, the PGA Tour slapped your memory up side the head last week when it grouped the 17-year-old Italian prodigy Thursday and Friday with Spain’s Sergio Garcia.

A decade-and-a-half ago Garcia was Manassero. He was the heir apparent, the next big Iberian in the Ballesteros and Olazabal lineage. He was a world class professional golfer in his teens. He had the shots, the looks, the energy, the cars, the endorsements, the personality, the girls, and even a dash of incipient duende – that indefinable something so difficult to describe but so easy to recognize – that certain blessed athletes possess.

Garcia, more than any other, was the one who was going to force Tiger Woods into that extra gear that Woods insisted was why he worked so hard at his game.

Then a funny thing happened on the way to greatness. Garcia’s confidence on the greens eroded. Soon enough that light in his eye dimmed. And by the time he got to the Transitions Championship near Tampa last week, he was 31 years old, majorless and ranked No. 85 in the world, a full 30 spots behind Manassero.

Garcia hadn’t lost his game so much as he had lost his way to the top. And, suddenly, he found himself looking at somebody he used to see in his own mirror.

What he saw was a teenager from the Italian province of Verona, hailed by one and all on the Continent as a fine young gentleman. Manassero was the youngest ever to win the British Amateur, the youngest ever to win a European Tour event and the youngest ever to make the cut at The Masters.

“He’s a great kid,” Garcia said of Manassero. “He doesn’t miss a lot of shots. He can do with a little bit more distance.”

And, Garcia didn’t say, I hope he doesn’t wake up 14 years from now and find himself, like I did, dragging a decade of unrealized promise like a ball and chain.

For a while last week it looked like Garcia had found a way to make all the obvious comparisons to Manassero motivate him. Garcia sailed around the tough Copperhead Course at the Innisbrook Resort in 68-66. He was the only player in the field to avoid a bogey through 36 holes and he slept one shot off the lead Friday night. He was perfectly positioned for a weekend run at his first U.S. win since the 2008 Players Championship.

For his part, Manassero hung around with a pair of 68s, just two back of Sergio. His announced goal at the beginning of the week was not to show up Garcia. It was to climb five spots in the world rankings and secure his return invitation to Augusta.

And, of course, he was eagerly awaiting his 18th birthday and the procurement of his driver’s license, which would allow him, he said, to buy the BMW that was going to serve as his training wheels for the Ferrari he would eventually own. It was all so Sergio.

“We started very young, both of us,” Manassero said. “We turned professional very young. It’s kind of similar … yeah, absolutely.”

But Manassero was careful to make one thing clear. He admired Garcia. He thanked his countrymen, the Molinari Bros. – Francesco and Eduardo – who are still showing him the professional ropes. But his idol was the great Ballesteros.

Ask a tour pro, and he will tell you one of the last things he wants to be near is another tour pro with putting issues. Which circles us back to Sergio. After birdieing his first hole Saturday, he made three bogeys in a five-hole stretch and dropped five shots back of the lead and into a tie with, yes, Manassero. Two of those five dropped shots resulted from missed short putts.

It got worse Sunday when Garcia bogeyed the fourth, fifth, sixth and eighth holes to disappear into the pack. Manassero, meanwhile, climbed all the way up into the top 15 before bogeying the last two holes for a disappointing and rankings-costly 70.

Politely, Manassero met reporters. “It was a tough final round because I made it tough,” he said. “At least I kept fighting to the end.”

When Garcia’s name came up he looked surprised. Did he think Garcia would get back to the top one day, he was asked.

“Absolutely,” Manassero said.

Privately, Manassero had to have seen, in Garcia, a bracing vision of what his future could turn out to be. But wisely he will be keeping any of those thoughts to himself.

“Sergio and I have played a lot of golf together,” Manassero said late Sunday. “You always learn something from him.”

And he left it at that.


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