Manassero can help lead new charm offensive
Matt Ogborn @mattogborn
There are very few sportsmen and women who transcend their sport; who exude so much charm and talent that the goodwill towards them threatens to put their contemporaries firmly in the shade.
Severiano Ballesteros was one such person. We have read the plethora of heartfelt eulogies written in the wake of his sad passing and seen the nostalgic videos highlighting his sparkling personality and fairway genius with misty eyes.
He led a European golf charge that also included compatriot and close friend José María Olazábal, Sir Nick Faldo, Bernhard Langer, Sandy Lyle and Ian Woosnam, which kept us on the edge of our seats at home or teetering on expectant tiptoes around the world during the past four decades.
It really was a golden generation. One borne out of frustration at American dominance of the Majors that sparked a European golf explosion and put this once stuffy game into the hands of the common man.
Seve, the youngest of four brothers who all went on to become golf professionals, sowed the seeds of this fresh European crop. Forced to play after dark at his local course, the reluctant caddie honed his skills under the light of the moon.
The fact Seve sharpened his game hitting pebbles on the beach and stones in fields with a crude three-iron also goes a long way to explaining the fierce drive behind his meteoric rise that saw him sweep up hearts at every turn with the swish of a matador’s cape.
What of the current European generation? Is there anyone from the southern continent who can also propel the galleries to their feet with a dash of Mediterranean magnetism and a locker crammed full of natural talent?
Sergio Garcia cantered on to the scene with a twinkle in his eye reminiscent of Ballesteros in his prime, his impish fairway dash in the 1999 USPGA Tiger Woods duel for ever stamped in the collective mind.
His Major near-misses in the years since have, however, rocked his confidence no end, the patchy putting betraying a game hewn from commanding driving accuracy and arguably the best iron shots in the game.
Álvaro Quirós has many admirers, the Spaniard standing tall amongst the established names, nevertheless he still hasn’t quite captured the public’s imagination in the way Seve did. Who then?
Step forward 18-year-old Matteo Manassero, whose idol is none other than Seve himself.
The Italian tyro is one of a new breed hailing from Roman shores who look set to emulate the all-conquering Spanish stable that produced Ballesteros, Olazábal, Garcia, José Maria Cañizares, Antonio Garrido and Miguel Ángel Jiménez.
With the Molinari brothers, Edoardo and Francesco, forging an impressive reputation in strokeplay events outside of their Ryder Cup bow in the thrilling victory at Celtic Manor last year, Manassero is also putting down his marker as the leader of a youthful group aiming to topple the Americans once again.
The path to glory could be said to be a great deal clearer of obstacles than Seve’s once was. The world rankings as of May 25th leave No 1 Lee Westwood, Luke Donald, Martin Kaymer, Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy sandwiched either side of the lone American Phil Mickelson in fourth spot.
When Dave Marr’s USA Ryder Cup team trounced the Europeans at Walton Heath 30 years ago, Faldo, Langer and Lyle were in their early twenties and yet to win a Major.
Ballesteros was the sole vanguard, having scooped his maiden Major title with a three-shot Open win over Ben Crenshaw and Jack Nicklaus at Royal Lytham & St Annes in 1979 before crossing the Atlantic to shock the Augusta establishment with an imperious four-shot victory to slip into his first Green Jacket in 1980.
Manassero’s rise through a packed European talent pool in an age of over-competitive parents, dizzying cash prizes and intense analysis is different but well worth praising too from the rafters.
This, after all, is a young man from the charming city of Verona who holed a chip aged just four alongside Seve when the Spanish showman visited Garda Golf Country Club in Manassero’s native Italy.
A graceful mover around the course, Manassero sometimes wears green trousers in a nod to Ballesteros and the note he received from the Spaniard after his first win in a European Tour event is a treasured possession.
Glancing at Manassero in person, he occasionally even looks like a young Seve itching to reach the first tee with a smile spread across his face.
Their games are a contrast in how to approach a competitive round, of that there is no doubt, the Italian’s unerring accuracy leaving him regularly on pristine fairways and greens in regulation whereas Seve’s zig-zag route to each hole often left us breathless and in awe of his powers of recovery.
A sweetly struck iron shot from the fairway into the heart of the green, though, can captivate a crowd just as much as an outlandish draw from behind the trees, let’s not forget that.
Much like other young prodigious sporting talents such as Argentine football maestro Lionel Messi, we will not see the whole picture until Manassero’s body has finished developing.
With more strength comes increased yardage, an essential weapon in any modern golfer’s armoury thanks to the Tiger effect and a leap forward in club technology that has rendered many courses defenceless in the face of a long-range barrage.
Manassero, though, should be more than happy with his progress at such a young age, his 4&3 victory over England’s Sam Hutsby in The Amateur Championship two years ago already feeling a lifetime ago.
His first European Tour trophy at the Castello Open must have been sweet, what with Seve’s blessing, while his Maybank Malaysian Open victory suggests he could be an outside tip for the remaining Majors after qualifying for the coming US Open.
He will not have things all his own way, that much is certain, determined South Africans such as Masters victor Charl Schwartzel and reigning Open champion Louis Oosthuizen raising their game considerably in the last few years.
Meanwhile, fellow young guns such as Rickie Fowler, Jason Day and Ryo Ishikawa also pose a potent threat; nonetheless Manassero has as good a chance as any to recreate a sprinkling of the Severiano magic.
The recent Spanish Open was a difficult time for the sport as a whole, Ballesteros’s passing reminding us of glorious moments past.
A strong showing at Wentworth’s BMW PGA Championship this week for the formerly starry-eyed Manassero, though, can help bolster the opinion that the European Tour has a genial ambassador who can do the continent proud on and off the course just like his idol Seve did before him.