Matteo Manassero was always looking for a game, even when he was 4.
And even when Seve Ballesteros was in town.
“It was special for me,” Manassero said Tuesday, recalling the time his hero came to Garda Golf Country Club in Italy. “I used to watch him on TV, and when I saw him that day in real life, it was great. Everything about him was different. That’s why I liked him so much.”
Before long, they were chipping together. Manassero said it was a “funny” moment, then explained later what he meant.
“I holed a chip,” he said. “That’s why it was so fun.”
Even at such an early age, the kid proved to be a quick study.
Alberto Binaghi, a former European Tour player who now coaches him, remembers when Manassero was barely big enough to hold a golf club and already was looking for some competition.
“He would want to have a putting or a chipping contest with you, and he would stand over the putt like this,” Binaghi said, stopping to crouch and narrow his eyes to demonstrate how Manassero was determined to make everything. “He wanted to beat you.”
That much about him hasn’t changed.
Manassero is the youngest player ever at the Players Championship, and there’s a reason for that.
When he won the Maybank Malaysian Open last month against a field that included Rory McIlroy and the last two major champions (Martin Kaymer and Charl Schwartzel), he became the first player in European Tour history to win twice before turning 18. He celebrated his 18th birthday two days later.
It was the only the latest record to fall.
Manassero was the youngest to win the British Amateur as a 16-year-old in 2009. That got him into the British Open at Turnberry, where he played the first two rounds with Tom Watson and wound up tied for 13th, the youngest low amateur at golf’s oldest championship. Then he became the youngest to make the cut at the Masters at age 16 when he tied for 39th last year.
The connection he felt with Ballesteros remains strong.
Manassero was playing the Spanish Open last week when Ballesteros died Saturday of a cancerous brain tumor. The Spanish great wrote to Manassero when he won the Castello Masters in Spain last fall. Ballesteros had such an influence on Manassero that the Italian teenager is known to wear bright green pants, as his idol once did.
“It’s been two sad years,” Manassero said. “He fought for a long time against this thing. With his big heart and his disposition to fight all the time, he’s been able to go against it. But it was going to happen. It was a sad day in Spain. We lost one of the best, a guy who changed the game. His personality was different from the others. In some ways, he changed golf because he played a different game.”
If there are any similarities between Manassero and Ballesteros, it is their appearance -- dark and handsome, an engaging smile. Despite so much success so early in his career, Manassero is playful and unfailingly polite.
Their games couldn’t be more different.
Manassero lacks power off the tee, and always has. He is working to add more length, not so much by changing his swing but by strengthening a body that has yet to fill out. But it comes with some advantages. Even when he was old enough to play at his home club of Garda Golf, getting to the green in two shots was never easy. As accurate as he was off the tee, he couldn’t reach some greens in regulation and had to figure out how to get his par.
“When I was very young and not so powerful, you have to do it that way to make par, by making up-and-downs from 50 yards,” he said. Then pausing to smile, he added, “I always hated making bogeys.”
Manassero broke into the top 50 with his win at Malaysia and is at No. 33 in the world this week. He is assured of playing the U.S. Open and British Open, along with the PGA Championship.
“This is not a 17-year-old or 18-year-old person thinking,” Alvaro Quiros said. “He’s more mature than the rest of us. It shows that if you are sensible and smart, you can succeed. He is so mature. Matteo is a 35-year-old in the body of an 18-year-old.”
Luke Donald had not played with him until the third round at the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship, which Donald won on his way to winning the tournament.
“For 17, extremely impressive,” Donald said. “He’s way ahead of where I was when I was 17. A great talent and a good kid, too.”
He is part of the youth movement, and the youngest of that group, as always.
Manassero started early and has been devouring everything about golf for most of his life. He remembers the most important advice Watson gave him during their two rounds at Turnberry.
“He just said to me, ‘Keep playing like this, and keep your hunger for this game,”’ Manassero said. “I love this game. I love to compete. I always watch on TV when guys are leading tournaments, wanting to be in that position.”
Despite all his early success, Manassero doesn’t appear to be in a big hurry.
For one thing, he still doesn’t know how to drive. Manassero said in Italy, he has to wait until he’s 18 before he can even take driving lessons. That will occupy part of his time this summer.
“You have to have patience in this game,” he said. “I always try to do my best, all the time. But I have to learn so much. It’s all been really fast and really good for the moment. But to make the big step, in these events, takes longer time.”
That’s one thing he has on his side.