U.S. Open

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Letter from Europe

Former tour pro prodigy who lost his way continues career revival in Europe

July 09, 2023
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Valerio Pennicino

There was a time, of course, when Matteo Manassero’s career trajectory was steeply upward, the word prodigy”hardly doing the Italian justice. Certainly, the notion that the lad from Verona, who won four times on the DP World Tour by age 20, would today be competing on the second-tier Challenge circuit would have been viewed with well-merited scorn.

But that is how things have gone for the now 30-year-old, albeit there are positive signs that serious rejuvenation could well be on the way. Victory in the Italian Challenge Open on Sunday was Manassero’s second victory on the DP World Tour’s developmental circuit this year, following his triumph at the Copenhagen Challenge in May.

Still, that level of success is nothing compared to what went before. Consider the following:

In 2009, the then 16-year-old was the youngest to win the British Amateur. One month later, he claimed the silver medal awarded to the leading amateur in the Open Championship at Turnberry. That was impressive enough, but even more so when one considers that the youngster finished T-13 and only four shots out of the playoff in which Stewart Cink outlasted Tom Watson.

By the end of 2009, Manassero was the No. 1 amateur on the planet, a position he justified at the 2010 Masters. Finishing T-36, he became the youngest man to make the cut at Augusta National. After turning professional one week later, Manassero took only six months to win on what was then the European Tour en route to becoming rookie of the year.

Manassero won again in 2012, then three more times in 2013, including the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, the Old World circuit’s flagship event. At 20, he was ranked as high as 25th in the world.

But that was as good as things got. In 2014, Manassero recorded just one top-10 finish on the European Tour. A year after that he made only six cuts in 22 starts, finishing 167th on the Order of Merit. Only the exemption from the Wentworth victory kept him on the tour. But that was merely a reprieve. At the end of 2018, Manassero lost his European Tour card.

The problem was obvious: While he possessed an all-round game with no obvious weakness, the still-to-fully-fill-out Manassero had always lacked distance off the tee. Even after his second European Tour win, his average of 273.2 yards ranked 178th in driving distance. It was no surprise that both his victories to that point had come on courses measuring less than 7,100 yards.

So it was he went in search of that missing yardage, what turned out to be, as so often, a mistake.

“In late 2018, I started afresh,” Manassero told Golf Digest in the wake of an opening round of 62 in last year’s Saudi International. “I couldn’t play any more, really. I was scared of where the ball was going. I had no control of it. It got to the point where you can’t face that sort of pressure; it’s too much. I wouldn’t necessarily say there was a low point, but the feeling I was experiencing meant there was nothing to enjoy. As a young player, of course, I would never have believed I could have reached that point. For such a long time, I had never experienced failure.”

And he didn’t on Sunday. Making four birdies and an eagle in a back-nine 30 over the Golf Nazionale course near Viterbo in his home nation, Manassero shot a closing 67 that saw him reach 21 under par. His 72-hole aggregate of 267 was three shots better than Englishman Will Enefer. Marc Hammer of Germany was third, with Alex Fitzpatrick, younger brother of 2022 U.S. Open champion, Matt, alone in fourth.

“It feels amazing,” said an emotional Manassero, who is now second on the Challenge Tour rankings (the top 15 at year’s end earn DP World Tour cards). “My goal this year was to win more than once. I won in Copenhagen to return to the winner’s circle, and it’s so special to prove that I can do it again. Coming into the week I wasn’t feeling great, but this is a special week and it has brought the best out in me. I am so happy that I have managed to get it done. I’m struggling to put it into words. This is definitely one I will never forget. To win in my home country is so special.”