Matteo Manassero has not forgotten to pay it forward

A prodigy who is destined for greatness, the Italian has been selfless enough to help budding players raise their game, writes Steve Elling.

At age 21, the Italian Matteo Manassero has won four titles in as many years. Ross Kinnaird / Getty Images
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Kids these days, right? No respect for their elders.

When four-time European Tour winner Matteo Manassero practises back home in Milan, he frequently hangs around with players in the country’s national-team programme, who gratefully use him as a sounding board for advice and hot gossip.

Yet while Manassero, a veritable lightning bolt across the Italian sky since leaving the programme four years ago, might be a wise old head professionally, reverence and deference remain in short supply.

At age 21, even with four victories and a series of age-related records on his CV, he is just one of the gang. Albeit with a few more Euros in his money clip. “They treat me like one of the other guys,” Manassero said, laughing.

He would not have it any other way. This week outside London, however, the player nicknamed Manny will be receiving the white-gloved, red-carpet treatment as the defending champion at the BMW PGA Championship, the top event on the regular European Tour schedule.

Last year, in his biggest victory to date, Manassero won the title in a sudden-death play-off at Wentworth’s famed West Course, giving him four pro wins in as many years.

While that rightly translated to handshakes among the Italian citizenry, at the headquarters of the Italian Golf Federation, a team guided by Alberto Binaghi, Manassero’s longtime swing coach, it has not changed the interpersonal dynamics much.

In a sport where egos of top players can suck the oxygen out of a room, if not create a hurricane vortex with them at the centre, Manassero is the utter antithesis, a cool breeze off the Mediterranean. In fact, despite myriad accomplishments at an incomprehensible age, he remains downright unaffected.

Italian golf royalty or not, players in the national programme, headquartered a few kilometres from his new home in Milan, do not grovel in his presence.

“They take tips from me, and they want to learn from me,” Manassero said, smirking. “But they don’t take me as they would take Ernie [Els], if he was to show up at the golf course, put it that way.”

Why would they? The top players in the programme are three or four years his junior. Setting aside his record-setting trajectory, he is a big-brother figure. Barely.

Thus, when mixing among the developing players, he is just Manny – which is just how he prefers it. “I don’t want to change people’s attitude towards me,” he said. “That is not my style. I would not be comfortable approaching people if they would change, especially young guys.”

These days, people are more likely to approach him. The spokesman for the Golf in Abu Dhabi promotional campaign has been fast-tracked like few others before him, winning four times since becoming the youngest player to claim a European Tour title at age 17.

His approachability and humility directly relate to the mantra imparted from his parents, who made sure their son’s resume, not his head, was all that grew fatter.

“They keep saying it, they throw it at me sometimes, ‘Just keep your life as it is’,” he said.

Mostly, he has, though he is definitely a work in progress. In fact, Manassero moved out of the family abode in Verona a few months after winning at Wentworth, relocating to Milan, nearer to Binaghi and his academy.

“Not many Italian guys move out of their houses at 20,” he said. “It’s a cultural thing, too. You get more mature, but that’s not only by winning, but being on tour, and so, things change.”

For Manassero, a medium-length player among bombers, adapting his game and body types to the professional style has been an adjustment in itself. He has not only experienced growing pains, but shrinking pains.

Over the past two years, with diet and exercise, he has pared his weight to 75kg, down from 85. While he has more energy, it changed the weight in his lower body and affected his balance.

“Before losing the weight, I definitely was stable,” he said. “I was heavier. I was born like that. I wasn’t born like this. Sometimes, it’s difficult to get ahold of this body now, so I need to understand it more.”

Now he is truly built for speed – of the clubhead variety. Manassero, never a long hitter, now has another gear and can dial up the distance if he needs to.

“If I want to have a long golf career, I needed become a better athlete,” he said. “I’m a stronger guy now than I was before. Less grounded, but I am working on that now.”

He is plenty grounded between the ears, and his humility is refreshing. For example, even after four years of playing in the US and Europe, Manassero acknowledges that there is still one player who turns his head.

You can probably guess the guy’s identity, though few players would dare voice it aloud, on the record.

“I think that probably Tiger [Woods] is the only one who still has that aura around him,” Manassero said. “I am telling the truth. He has something where, you feel like he is around.”

Perhaps for the better, little of the same awe exists for Manassero among the boys in the Italian federation, which has been churning out a stream of Challenge and European tour players over the past few seasons, including the Molinari brothers, both former Ryder Cup players.

Manassero is gratified that their success has helped the sport gain a foothold in Italy, traditionally not a hotbed of golf fandom. Even at 21, he knows much more can be done, and plans to lead the charge.

“What it needs is more access,” he said. “Obviously, most kids and families, especially now [with the economy], are not capable of spending certain amounts of money. Easier access would lead to a huge wave of kids.”

There are no public courses in Italy, which needs to change.

“Why don’t I make one? I am too young to get into this kind of business, but it is something that is definitely on my mind,” he said. “I hope, before me making one, I am going to convince the federation to take care of this topic.”

Do not bet against him. After all, he was one of a handful of influential players who helped publicly lobby the International Olympic Committee to add golf to the Olympic Games and was on hand when the formal announcement was made in 2009.

The sport hopes its Olympics inclusion becomes the greatest global grow-the-game initiative in history, though Manny has already been doing his part, mentoring the boys back in Milan. For sure, he can still relate to their situation and station.

“In some ways, I would say I am closer to the future of amateur golf than the future of professional golf,” Manassero said. “Only a few years ago, I was an amateur, and I have fresh memories of how my process was.”

If he ever forgets those details? The national team will happily remind him.

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