Sixteen-year-old Italian Matteo Manassero is low amateur

Monday July 20th, 2009

TURNBERRY, Scotland — Remember St. Andrews in 1995? Costantino Rocca beating the ground with his fists on the edge of the 18th green as his rollercoaster putt disappeared below ground? It was Italy's finest moment in Open Championship history. Rocca, of course, was pummeled by John Daly in the playoff, but still.

It has been a long wait for an Italian encore at The Open, but we got one this week with 16-year-old Matteo Manassero, who won the silver medal at Turnberry as the low amateur. He was two over and tied for 13th.

Like Rocca, Manassero didn't win the claret jug, but he was mighty close for a while. "I got close to the lead, looked up at the leaderboard then three-putted," he said, laughing. (He also displayed a command of English that proves he has been paying attention in school, too.)

Wearing the blue and white colors of his country, he received a standing ovation on the final green. He's been getting them all week, having accompanied Tom Watson for the first two rounds.

He qualified for Turnberry by becoming the youngest-ever British Amateur champion. He is also the youngest competitor in the modern era of the Open and the youngest winner of the silver medal in the past 60 years.

None of that will make the slightest impact back in his home country, however. Italians don't do golf very well; they do football spectacularly. Just ask people in Rome or Milan if they have ever heard of Rocca. But Manassero is not the least bit concerned and accepts his anonymity with grace and humor.

"In Italy, it will be impossible for me to be more famous than the football players," he said. "Even I watch more football than golf. I support AC Milan. They are not in a great moment right now."

Manassero, however, most certainly is. He said he is in no hurry to turn professional and chase the money. He plans to finish his last three years of school before following in the footsteps of his heroes, Rocca and Seve Ballesteros.

"Seve was not just one of the greatest players," Manassero said, "he played another kind of game."

hTe Italian got a free tutorial on Thursday and Friday from Watson, another of the game's great shotmakers who carried the flag this week for Seve and the Old Geezers Club.

"I grew up a bit," Manassero said of his experience playing with Watson. "Even when he wasn't giving me advice, I learned so much from just watching him."

Manassero is also following in the footsteps of the 2008 silver medal winner, Chris Wood, who this year finished tied for third with Lee Westwood, just one shot off the playoff. The 2007 low amateur, Rory McIlroy, is now No. 22 in the World Ranking and finished the Open tied for 47th at eight over.

"If I can go on to do as well as they have," Manassero said, "it will be a great honor to compete with them in the future."

Manassero is already charming and confident in front of the media, the cameras love him, and the galleries have taken to him. He hails from Verona and, with apologies for re-writing Shakespeare, he is "One Classy Gentleman of Verona."

Remember his name. He's a great story.

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