Matteo Manassero always seems to be squinting. Maybe it’s a nervous youthful tick. Or maybe it’s the ever-increasing glare of the spotlight (or the pink pants he wore Saturday). Or maybe he’s getting glimpses of the stellar future that’s awaiting him and can’t quite believe his eyes.
A month after winning the Malaysian Open, Manassero is back at it again at the BMW PGA Championship. He shares the lead with Luke Donald at five under par after keeping his nerve to dig out nine pars on the back nine in a third-round 72. Lee Westwood is just two shots behind.
“I have a chance to beat the world’s No. 1 and No. 2 golfers,” Manassero said. “It feels fantastic. I’m certainly not as mentally strong as they are, but I will fight.”
Fear doesn’t seem to be in his vocabulary, but he is about to be tested on the biggest stage of his life so far.
“Matteo has a bright future, and he’ll be tough to beat,” Donald said. “But I’ll be disappointed if I don’t win. But I felt like Seve out there. I was in the trees and leaves and escaping from everywhere. I can’t do that two days in a row.”
To watch Manassero play, no one would believe that the scourge of professional golf is slow play. He stands behind his ball, glances where he plans to whack it, steps up and does just that. And mostly it goes where his brain has computed it would go. (OK, along with his caddie’s yardage book.) Never mind gone in 60 seconds, his ball was gone in six seconds from the moment he stood behind it at the long par-4 first hole to the moment he sent it fizzing into the cloudy Wentworth skyline.
The winds were gusting up to 30 miles per hour, and one zephyr caught hold of his ball and tossed it down into the middle of a bunker on the right side of the fairway. A bogey was his punishment. Patience is not a trait one associates with teenagers, but the 18-year-old Italian, like he has been all his young life, is the exception. Birdies at 4 and 6 took him into the outright lead, while Luke Donald’s form deserted him on a front-nine 40.
The players wore navy blue on Friday to commemorate the 20th anniversary of Seve Ballesteros’s fifth victory at Wentworth. Manassero added a 70 to a startling first-round 66 that was overshadowed only by Luke Donald’s 64.
“He gives me inspiration all the time,” Manassero said of Ballesteros. “He was a genius. He stays in my heart and has always been my idol.”
Seve would be proud.
Manassero will make his U.S. Open debut next month at Congressional, and then he’ll take a week off to complete his school exams. He still has one year to go before he graduates, and he keeps up with assignments via telephone conversations with his tutors.
He’s not exactly your average teenager.
Manassero has already won twice on the European Tour. In addition to his win in Malaysia, he won for the first time last year in Spain to become the youngest ever champion in Europe.
“The Youngest Ever” tag has been following his remarkable rise through the game. Youngest ever winner of the British Amateur championship (2009); youngest ever winner of the Silver Medal as the leading amateur at the British Open (2009); and youngest ever player to make the cut at the Masters (2010), where he finished tied for 36th in what was the best performance by a European amateur in 73 years.
Manassero is already ranked No. 36 in the world after becoming the second youngest golfer to turn professional in Europe after Ballesteros. Sneaking up the leaderboard and tucked in just behind Manassero and Donald is the aging gentleman of Worksop, No. 1 Westwood. The Englishman shot 69 to be three under par for the championship. Westwood was eight shots behind Donald’s first round lead.
“I’ve done a fair bit of lurking this week,” he said, chuckling. “It has that feel of a major about it, and I know not to make mistakes. This is not the kind of course where someone is going to run away with it.”
After struggling for two days to get back into the mix, Westwood glanced up at the leaderboard on Saturday to see just two names ahead of him going into the final round.
“I’ve been on tour longer than he’s been on Earth,” Westwood said of Manassero to much laughter. “He’s irritatingly young. And improving and learning all the time. He’s a nice kid, too.”
Donald was the other name. He showed his mental strength to fight back with four birdies coming home to shoot 72.
Westwood and Donald have each other firmly in their sights. The race to be No. 1 is back on at Wentworth. Westwood needs to finish ahead of Donald to stay in the top spot. But if they’re not careful, an 18-year-old Italian might just sneak off with the main prize.