The Masters 2014: From amateur hour to moment of truth for mighty Matteo Manassero
Italian prodigy targets second successful Masters and Ryder Cup place
Jack and Arnie went to the first tee shortly after 7.30am, leaving behind them a trail of footprints on polished turf saturated by dew. On the clubhouse balcony golfing grandees gathered to watch the ceremonial start to the Masters. Among their number a cherubic tyro leaned across the balustrade with a sweater tied around his shoulders to protect against the early April nip.
Tom Watson approached with an avuncular pat on the back. Ben Crenshaw followed suit. The thought occurred that Watson was gathering friends and family around a table for breakfast before heading to the first tee himself, and that the youngster was probably his grandson. But the kid did not take a seat. His eyes never left the middle, glued to the now truncated swings of the two players who revolutionised the game in 1960s America.
Once Nicklaus and Palmer had left, he was off down the stairs without a word. He would be teeing off shortly. Four years on he appears taller, leaner, with the look of a man. Yet Matteo Manassero has still to celebrate his 21st birthday.
As the Amateur Champion, Manassero passed through the gates of Magnolia Drive in 2010 with 16-year-old eyes on stalks, in awe of Augusta National and of the Masters Tournament. It was, he says on reflection, a magical episode. "I was in heaven pretty much. I was on the balcony that morning because I had an early tee-time. Tom and Ben were there. Tom introduced me to Ben, whom I didn't know.
"I wanted to take everything in, to see the crowds, this beautiful place. Everything from staying at the Crow's Nest, the amateur dinner, practice round with Tom and Rory [McIlroy]. It was incredible. I was playing well so I was able to enjoy all the stuff going on around me. It was more excitement than nerves. I didn't have enough experience to worry about anything."
Manassero was at that point the youngest to have contested the Masters, a record since lowered by a 14-year-old Chinese prospect Tianlang Guan. Grouped that first morning with Lee Westwood and the former champion Trevor Immelman, the Italian birdied the first. He would go on to make the cut and birdie the last hole of the tournament to finish tied 37th, comfortably the best-placed amateur.
He returns this week as an established member of the European Tour, a player already with four professional victories to his name, more than McIlroy at the same age. The Masters, he says, favours him least of the big four but he does not discount a run at the Green Jacket, and, with the Ryder Cup looming in September, Manassero is mindful of the need to land a big one to force his way into Paul McGinley's team. "Of all the majors this is the hardest for me. That is not going to stop me giving my best and enjoying every second of a special tournament.
"I'm playing well. The aim is to have a good, stress-free Masters, almost like I did in 2010, just play with freedom. If I do that I'm sure I can do well."
This is a big year in many ways for Manassero, ending as it does with the Ryder Cup. His victory last May at the European Tour's flagship event, The BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, was his most important, a statement of real significance that thrust him into the world's top 30 for the first time, so he arrives at Augusta no longer as a novelty but as a player with a reputation to enhance.
"This time the Masters has a lot of real value for me," he said. "Back then it was an amazing experience that I wasn't sure I would do again.
"Now I have to meet the standard that brought me here. That is being professional and it's a different thing. My goal for 2014 is to do what I have managed each year as a pro, to win, and the Ryder Cup. It is difficult to make the team. Some guys have started so well they are uncatchable, but there are still some possibilities at big events. I would love to put myself in a position where the captain has to think about me."
They do not come bigger than this. The Open Championship retains its cache as the oldest major championship, but the Masters is golf's commercial driver. And to slip on that jacket has come to mean as much as raising the Claret Jug.
Manassero is not favourite to win but he is preparing to do so, which is more than good enough for one so young. "I have learned a lot of things and I am more experienced than a guy who is 20, but I still feel like a 20-year-old fortunately."
Five to follow on the Magnolia Drive to Augusta mastery
Luke Donald The form is returning after switching coaches following a disappointing finish at the US Open last year. Tied third on debut in 2005 and fourth three years ago. Top 10s at the Honda Classic and the Valspar three weeks ago mean he should command respect and suggest he is good enough to be in contention.
Stephen Gallacher Making his debut at the age of 39. The Scot earned his passage here with a commanding victory at the Dubai Desert Classic and followed that with a top-10 finish at the WGC-Cadillac Championship. Practised yesterday with former champion Sandy Lyle so won't be short of tips.
Ian Poulter Led at halfway four years ago before slipping to 10th place. Finished seventh two years ago. Last year's missed cut was his first in nine visits and not quite out of character. He finished 2013 strongly and is beginning to fire after a slow start to this year. Is this the week he brings his Ryder Cup stare to a major?
Justin Rose Yet to win an event following his first major victory at the US Open last year. Finished fifth here in 2007 and eighth two years ago. Clearly comfortable on the course having never missed the cut in eight visits. Perhaps the scent of the dogwoods and azaleas will trigger the fearsome consistency that led to his breakthrough win at Merion.
Jamie Donaldson Emerged unbeaten and Europe's joint-leading points scorer at last week's drawn Eurasia Cup. He leads the Race To Dubai and was runner-up at the WGC-Cadillac Championship at Doral. Became only the fifth player ever to ace the par-three sixth on Masters debut last year. Dark horse.
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