FORMBY, England – It’s easy to hang the label of future superstar on young shoulders, extremely easy in the case of 16-year-old Italian Matteo Manassero.
Manassero is bidding to become the youngest winner of the British Amateur Championship. He set up that possibility when he defeated England’s Darren Renwick, 4 and 3, in the semi-finals.
The precocious Italian faces England’s Sam Hutsby for the chance to break Bobby Cole’s record as youngest winner. Cole was 18 years and one month when he won in 1966, one day younger than England’s John Beharrell, the 1956 champion.
Seve Ballesteros is Manassero’s golfing idol. The young Italian met the Spanish legend 12 years ago when Ballesteros paid a visit to Manassero’s home club, Garda Golf and Country Club in Northern Italy.
Manassero was only four then, but had the pleasure of hitting chips with Seve. He’s revered the five-time major winner ever since.
The two have much in common. Manassero has the sort of movie star good looks that made Seve a sporting icon. Manassero also plays a game with which Seve would find familiar.
The young Italian turned up at Formby with limited ambitions. Now he stands on the verge of invitations to this year’s Open Championship and next year’s Masters.
“I can’t believe it,” he said. “It’s like a dream come true. My ambition was just to make the cut and do the best in match play.”
The Italian has yet to be taken to the 18th green in any match this week. Twice he’s been taken to the 17th, once by Denmark’s Peter Baunsoe in the fourth round and again in the quarterfinals against England’s Tommy Fleetwood.
Fleetwood, last year’s runner-up, was the local favorite and the match drew a huge gallery. However, the 20-year-old made two crucial errors at the 14th and 15th holes when he missed both greens with poor chips. He lost both holes after being all square and ended up losing, 2 and 1.
Manassero plays a strong opponent in Hutsby. The 20-year-old Englishman is one of the highest rated young players in England, and a definite to make this year’s Great Britain & Ireland Walker Cup team.
Hutsby survived a tense semi-final match against England’s Stiggy Hodgson. He needed 21 holes to put away the tenacious little 18-year-old. He finally took his chance when he holed a 12-foot birdie putt at the par-5, third hole after missing three consecutive putts to win the match.
“Stiggy is such a gutsy player and he never gives up, so I knew I had to play well,” Hutsby said. “I just tried to play my normal game. This is a tough golf course and pars here are sometimes good enough to win holes.”
Hutsby overcame Virginia Tech’s Jurrian van der Vaart, 5 and 3, in the quarterfinals to set up his nervous battle with Hodgson. Hutsby looked to have won it at the 19th when Hodgson’s tee shot found the right hand trees and all he could do was chip out. However, Hodgson hit a fantastic long, downwind pitch shot over a bunker and managed to stop the ball three feet from the hole to save par.
Hutsby was always odds on to win in extra holes. He has never lost a playoff in his amateur career.
He now faces a difficult match against Manassero, whom he’s never played against. “I’ve heard of him and he’s obviously a great young talent, but I’ve got four years of experience on him.”
Manassero is the romantic’s choice to take the title. If he does win, he’ll become the third player in British Amateur Championship history to enter the match play stages as medallist and win the trophy. Welshman Philip Parkin, 1983, and Warren Bladon of England, 1996, are the only two other players to do that.
The Italian is trying not to think about the rewards that go with winning this title – invites to this year’s Open Championship and next year’s Masters. “Maybe it’s better if I don’t think about it,” he said.
As for Hutsby, the rewards are very much on his mind. “I’m now only 36 holes from the Masters.”
Thirty-six holes and one player who could go on to become Italy’s answer to Seve Ballesteros.