AUGUSTA, Ga. – The two amateurs that made news Thursday morning at Augusta National could not be any different.
Matteo Manassero is a 16-year-old phenom, not only the youngest player in this year’s event, but the youngest competitor in Masters history. Manassero, who shot 71 Thursday, won’t have to wait long to become a rich man.
He’ll make his pro debut in May at the Italian Open. His British Amateur title and performance at last year’s British Open, where he tied for 13th and was low amateur, will likely translate into lucrative endorsement deals. That’s why his group was trailed Thursday by a handful of IMG agents.
Nathan Smith was the other amateur to appear on the leaderboard Thursday. The 31-year-old was under par early, and tied for the lead after a 25-foot birdie putt on the par-3 12th got him to 2 under par.
“I saw (my name) up there and I was fortunate to keep it up there as long as possible,” Smith said. “What a thrill.”
When asked how often he looked at the leaderboard, he laughed and said “Oh, every hole. I was peeking, that’s for sure.”
Smith ended up shooting 74, but has a good chance to become the first reigning U.S. Mid-Am champ to make the cut at the Masters.
He’s also one of the world’s best amateurs – ranked fourth in the Golfweek/amateurgolf.com World Rankings – but has never earned a dime from the game. Smith, a member of last year’s U.S. Walker Cup team, is a career amateur. He’s earned his money as an investment adviser at Executive Wealth Counselors, where he is a partner.
Brad Benjamin, the U.S. Amateur Public Links champ, also played well, shooting 73 in the first round. Benjamin, who made birdie on No. 10 and parred his last eight holes, tied defending champion Angel Cabrera.
Smith is playing his second Masters. He shot 78-72 in 2004, making a double bogey on his 36th hole to miss the cut by two shots
“I remember last Masters, … looking up (at the scoreboard), and I said to myself, ‘Boy that would be cool to get off to a quick start and see your name up there,’ ” Smith said.
Smith birdied two of his first three holes Thursday to get his name on the Masters’ famed manual scoreboards. He got back to 2 under with a 3-foot birdie putt on the par-5 eighth. That was the start of a nine-hole stretch where Smith failed to register a par. He made birdies on Nos. 8, 10 and 12 and bogeys on 9, 11 and 13-16.
Manassero, ranked No. 1 in the Golfweek/amateurgolf.com World Rankings, played steady golf, making three birdies and two bogeys.
“I played good all day, every shot,” Manassero said. “I should have (shot) even less than 71, but I’m really happy about my score.”
Manassero’s round drew praise from playing partner Lee Westwood.
“You have to pinch yourself and remind yourself that he’s only 16 and got a very mature game,” Westwood said. “He’ll be around for a long time.”
Smith, a two-time U.S. Mid-Amateur champion, is the oldest amateur in the field by eight years.
He was a four-time NCAA Division III All-American at Allegheny College, but said he didn’t consider turning pro out of college because the pros played ‘at a different level.’ He was playing at that level for much of the day Thursday.
Smith’s most impressive birdie came at the par-4 10th, where he hit hybrid from 230 yards off of a downhill, sidehill lie to 20 feet. “It’s probably one of the best shots I’ve ever hit,” Smith said.
He hit 7-iron to 25 feet on the famed par-3 12th to make birdie there.
He was done in by poor driving, though. Hooked tee shots on Nos. 9, 11, 13 and 14 led to bogeys.
“I’m just going to have to stay within myself a little more,” Smith said. “I think it’s a big golf course for me. Sometimes you try to do too much.”
He three-putted Nos. 15 and 16 after leaving himself with tricky birdie putts of around 30 feet. Still, Smith was happy with the end result. “I probably played about as good as I could.”