Matteo Manassero: future major champion

By: Nick Bonfield | Mon 03 Jun 2013 | Comments

Before the start of the BMW PGA Championship, tour officials were left to scratch their heads in disbelief, contemplate a calamitous series of events and ponder how things had gone so badly wrong. On Wednesday at Wentworth, the hoards of journalists that had descended to cover the European Tour’s flagship event had absolutely no inclination to discuss the golf tournament.

On Tuesday, The R&A and USGA announced at concurrent news conferences the anchored putter ban would become concrete legislation from January 2016. That evening, Sergio Garcia used a racial stereotype to answer a question about Tiger Woods and, to compound the error, the European Tour’s Chief Executive made his own racial mishap while attempting to defend one of his star players. During Wednesday’s press conferences, player after player was subjected to a barrage of questions on these controversial topics, while tour authorities looked on, desperately trying to direct journalists away from such areas of questioning. By Sunday evening, though, Wednesday’s tumultuous events seemed a distant memory, thanks to a stunning performance from a youngster who looks set to become a genuine superstar.

Matteo ManasseroEven before his efforts at Wentworth, Matteo Manassero had announced himself as a player every bit as good as most of the professionals making a living on the European Tour. But in truth, he didn’t get the plaudits he deserved for a series of record-breaking feats. The poise, talent and spellbinding maturity of this young Italian seemed to convince journalists he was 10 years older than his birth certificate professed.

Aged 16, Manassero defeated Sam Hutsby in the final of the Amateur Championship to become the youngest ever winner of the tournament. The following year, he won on the European Tour at the age of 17, and his victory at the 2012 Singapore Open earned him a place in the record books as the youngest European Tour player to win three events. In a world with so many talented professional golfers, a player claiming three titles before the age of 20 was a simply startling feat. But this is no ordinary 20-year-old, and events at Wentworth helped show why he’s seen such a monumental surge up the world rankings.

Starting the final round two shots off the lead, Manassero showed admirable composure and a maturity transcending his tender years. He reached the turn in 32, chipped in at 14 and battled home for a 69 to earn himself a play-off berth with Marc Warren and Simon Khan. The resilience he showed at 14 – making birdie after Warren holed a wedge to move two clear - was perhaps a sign of things to come.

In the play-off, the golfing world stood up and took notice of a young man with a golfing skill set surpassed by very few. Warren – a golfer with ten years more experience – found trees on the first play-off hole and effectively bowed out of the contest, but a calm and collected Manassero wouldn’t suffer the same affliction. Facing an eight footer to stay in the contest, he rolled it home with ease – symptomatic of a play-off where he didn’t put a foot wrong. He split the fairway twice more with drives and matched Khan step from step.

At the fourth time of asking, he astutely switched up to a driver and delivered the first half of his knock-out blow. With the Italian in prime position, Khan felt compelled to go for the green. Feeling the pressure, he mis-timed his approach and found water short of the putting surface. Manassero - refusing to be overcome by the enormity of the situation he found himself in – pulled a wood and found the centre of the green with an immaculate approach. Laying up was the obvious choice, but such is the confidence, awareness and tactical nous of Manassero it was something that barely entered his mind.

So many things were so impressive about Manassero’s play-off performance – control of emotions, strategy, immense skill and flawless execution, to name a few –but what really stood out was his mental strength. There he was, in front of the European Tour’s biggest crowd, on the verge of becoming the youngest ever winner of the circuit’s flagship event, and he looked completely at ease. Having ability is one thing, but mental fortitude is the catalyst that turns latent natural talent into success at the highest level.

After the tournament, Sky Sports’ Rob Lee declared Manassero mental game to be ‘in the top 1% on tour.’ How could anyone disagree? At 20 years old, he boasts more professional victories than Tiger Woods had at the same age. What’s so impressive about the Italian is there appears to be no discernable weakness in his game. He is short off the tee, granted, but he’s made recent improvements in that area. His ball striking stats are some of the best on tour, his short game is good and his putting stroke is exceptional. But the thing that sets him above all of his contemporaries is his mentality.

As flippant as it might sound, countless youngsters around the world have similar playing attributes to Manassero.  Looking back at past winners of the Amateur Championship (a tournament he won aged 16 in 2009 to become the event’s youngest ever victor) is revealing, though:

2012 – Alan Dunbar
2011 – Bryden Macpherson
2010 – Jin Jeong
2009 – Matteo Manassero
2008 – Reinier Saxton
2007 – Drww Weaver
2006 – Julien Guerrier
2005 – Brian McElhinney
2004 – Stuart Wilson
2003 – Gary Wolstenholme
2002 – Alejo Larrazabal

Who, aside from an avid golf fan, could honestly say they are familiar with half the names on that list? It takes a huge amount of talent to win the Amateur Championship. Granted, personal issues and other factors may have come into play, but mental strength is the dividing line between success and failure. The gulf between these players and Manassero in terms of ability is small, but the psychological gap is huge.

Something else that makes Manassero’s success even more satisfying is his demeanor and the way he conducts himself. Unlike many other talented youngsters, his parents made him stay in school until he was 16, and that sense of perspective has enabled him to keep his feet firmly on the ground. He’s a polite, mild-mannered and respectful young man with a great work ethic, who doesn’t take anything for granted. What’s more, he plays quick golf – a refreshing trait in a game that’s increasingly succumbing to slow play.

There are so many reasons to be so positive about Matteo Manassero, and there simply cannot be any doubts about his major-winning aptitude. He is a class act both on and off the field and a youngster that hasn’t received enough praise for his astonishing achievements. With victory at the PGA, though, things look sure to change. In truth, it wouldn’t be a surprise if he registered a major victory before any of Europe’s golden generation.

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