Italian amateur Manassero proving he belongs at Augusta

Italian amateur Manassero proving he belongs at Augusta

Matteo Manassero plans to turn professional next month after he turns 17.

AUGUSTA, Ga. — A looping hook off the tee into trees. Banana shot around a trunk and under branches to 12 feet. Birdie.

Seve Ballesteros? No, Matteo Manassero.

That was the 16-year-old Italian’s first hole at the Masters, and it seems the spirit of Seve has returned to Augusta National. Manassero is the youngest competitor in Masters history and, with rounds of 71 and 76, he is the only amateur of the six who teed off on Thursday to make the weekend. He is the first British Amateur champion to make the cut since Sergio Garcia in 1999.

The low amateur prize at Augusta is his. The world comes next.

He plans to turn professional next month when he turns 17, and he already has seven invites starting with the Italian Open. “The plan is to earn enough money to earn my tour card for next year in Europe,” Manassero said. But he still promises to finish his two remaining years at school via tutorials over the Internet. In the meantime, he has been receiving quite a golfing education.

Last July he qualified for the British Open as the youngest-ever British Amateur champion. He played the first two rounds with Tom Watson and finished tied 13th. At the Masters, he has been up close and personal with Canada’s Mike Weir, the 2003 Masters champion, and Lee Westwood, the No. 1 player in Europe and the No. 4 player in the world.

Watson said at Turnberry that the kid has “it” — the X-Factor. He has that Seve Factor, too. Charm, class, a thick mop of jet-black hair, a sparkle in his eyes and a joyful smile. The camera loves him. And, he plays step-up-and-hit-it golf, too — the refreshing style of youth. His English is also coming along beautifully.

“He’s got a big future,” Westwood said. “You have to pinch yourself to remind yourself that he’s only 16. And he’s a nice lad, too.”

But none of this adulation or achievement will make the slightest impact in his home city of Verona. Very few in Italy has even heard of Costantino Rocca, despite the fact that the roly-poly Italian defeated Tiger Woods in Ryder Cup singles in 1997 at Valderamma in Spain.

“In Italy, it will be impossible for me to be more famous than the football players,” Manassero said. “Even I watch more football than golf. But I am very proud of myself. Today I made almost all the important

Manassero has been wearing the blue and white colors of Italy and proudly displaying his country’s tricolor flag on his blue sweater and white shirt. And he has been sporting a red Masters baseball cap bought from the pro shop. The logos and sponsorship money will follow soon enough. The spectators have already taken him to heart. Remind you of anyone?

Manassero remembers meeting his hero, Seve, when the Spanish legend played the Italian Open. Manaserro was just 4 years old. Seve handed him a wedge and invited him to hit a shot onto the practice green. Manassero remembers that he nailed it, of course, and that Seve shook his head in disbelief.

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

Manaserro also remembers watching TV as Nick Faldo reeled in Greg Norman in 1996. He was just about to turn 3 years old. He has his mother, Francesca, to thank for nurturing his love of golf. And it was an accident of fate. When he was 2, she used to sit him in front of the TV to distract him at meal times. One time she turned on the golf by mistake and, pretty soon, he would only eat when watching golf.

The 16-year-old will get a front row seat on Sunday to experience just what it feels like to be crowned Masters champion. As low amateur he will take part in the prize presentation ceremony in front of the clubhouse as the 2010 champion receives his green jacket.

“I am dreaming of being Masters champion,” he said. At what age? “I don’t mind.”

You get the impression The Kid would measure up nicely for a green jacket.