ANDALUCIA, SPAIN l Matteo Manassero is not up there with Rory McIlroy, at least as yet. But his record-equalling 64 in the first round of the Andalucian Open at Aloha once again had everyone speaking about the two players in the same breath. The Italian had a frugal 24 putts on greens as heavily dipping and heaving as those at Augusta where, regrettably, he might struggle to be from 9-14 April.
“It was one of those good days,” said a beaming Manassero, who will be 19 next month. “I made 90 per-cent of my birdie chances and I played with Miguel (Angel Jimenez), which was such fun.”
The charms of Aloha added to everybody’s feel-good factor that morning. The spectators, when they were not admiring the golf, were marvelling at mountain views punctuated by conifers as rigidly erect as church steeples. Manassero, for his part, was revelling in the fact that this was his sort of course, one where distance control and strategy were all-important.
Back in Italy, they have been asking Alberto Binaghi, Manassero’s long-time coach, “What has happened to your boy?” In the people’s eyes, the lad was in a slump because he had not won since last April’s Maybank Malaysian Open. Irritated though Binaghi has sometimes felt at that line in questioning, he has always explained, patiently, that Manassero has continued to do distinctly well for one so young. Even if he had not won for a third time, he had succeeded in finishing in 31st place on the 2011 Order of Merit.
Before coming to Aloha, Manassero was sixth in Abu Dhabi prior to reaching the second round of the WGC-Accenture Match Play. There, he lost to Martin Laird by 2 and 1 in a cracker of a second-round match in which the Scot made an unanswerable seven birdies.
Manassero was probably as disappointed with his 2011 results as any of those concerned Italians, at least until Binaghi argued it out with him at the turn of the year.
“I told him that his attitude was bad,” said Binaghi. “After he won in Malaysia, he was expecting to win a tournament a month but that was never going to happen. He started pushing too hard and that eventually affected his putting. He was too easily frustrated and he stopped smiling.
“I reminded him that when he won his tournaments, he wasn’t expecting so much of himself and that his attitude was all the better for it.”
Binaghi, when he was on Tour, played alongside such greats of the game as Gary Player, Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Seve Ballesteros and Jose Maria Olazabal. As he watched Manassero over the second nine of his 64, Binaghi spoke of how Manassero reminded him of no one as much as Langer.
“When Langer couldn’t do a shot he didn’t do it,” said the coach. “He chopped out sideways and went from there. Matteo is like that. Very good on strategy. He is not like Rory, who can kill a course with his length. There are no ‘gimme’ fours at the par fives for him. He has to work for his birdies.”
Mind you, none of his nine birdies looked difficult last Thursday, with one great putt after another subsiding bang in the middle of the cup.
During the Volvo Golf Champions in January, Binaghi, Dave McNeilly, Manassero’s caddie, and Manassero himself had a brainstorming session in a bid to identify what was awry with what everyone considers to be a great putting stroke.
They considered all three of “quality of strike,” “hole awareness” and “pace” and, before too long, Binaghi identified that the player was taking his putter back ever so slightly inside the line and pushing his putts a tad. While he finished that tournament no higher than 23rd, his 68 on the Sunday was the second-best score of the day.
Binaghi is happy that the teenager in Manassero has not gone away. He still hangs around with his old school friends when he is not playing tournaments, though he follows Binaghi’s advice not to involve himself in their football games. “Matteo,” laughs Binaghi, “would be incapable of holding back.
“Luckily,” he continued, “he likes golf so much that he does not feel the urge to be doing anything else.”
Manassero has a BMW waiting for the moment when he passes his driving test, though that would not seem to be the priority that many might suppose. Either for him or, presumably, for his mother, who is currently enjoying driving the automobile herself.
When it was put to Manassero on Thursday night that it must be “important” to him to be at The Masters, he shrugged off that word straightaway.
“It’s not ‘important’ to play at Augusta but it would be nice. I’ve been once and it would be good to go back but there are other events. Morocco, Sicily and Malaysia, for a start.”
In other words, he has taken heed of Binaghi’s advice not to be in so much of a hurry – an approach which could serve him equally well when, finally, he gets behind the wheel of that BMW.