The Changing Face of Italian Golf

9/17/2013 1:59:00 PM
Edoardo and Francesco Molinari flank Matteo Manassero on an Italian charge  (Getty Images)
Edoardo and Francesco Molinari flank Matteo Manassero on an Italian charge (Getty Images)

By Mitchell Platts

The foundation of the “Roll Call of Honour” for Italian golfers on The European Tour was laid during an amazing 23 day spell in 1976 when Baldovino Dassu emerged from relative obscurity to win first the Dunlop Masters then, almost mystically, the Italian Open.

This week, with the 70th Open de Italia Lindt taking place at Golf Club Torino on the outskirts of the northern city of Turin, Dassu reminisced on how those two victories transformed his career and kick-started the rise and rise of professional golf in his country.

The year of 1976 is best remembered in golf for the arrival that summer of Seve Ballesteros but by autumn first in Chepstow, Wales, where he captured the prestigious Dunlop Masters title on October 2, and then in Sardinia, it was the 24-year-old dark-haired Dassu who took the then fledgling European Tour by storm. At Is Molas Golf Club on October 24, Dassu truly sent the local gallery into ecstasy by becoming the first Italian to win the national title since Ugo Grappasonni in 1950 and 1954.

Dassu, who had hinted at great things to come when he shot 60 in his debut season in the Swiss Open at Crans-sur-Sierre, still enjoys playing the game although his time is taken on numerous projects ranging from course design to coaching to promoting golf tourism in Italy.

   Baldovino Dassu  

He recalled: “There was great satisfaction for me to win as a professional after five years. What I remember most about the first win is that I had two putts to win from three feet and my playing partner Hubert Green, who won the US Open the next year, shook my hand before I hit the first putt! It distracted me and I missed the first putt but made the next! It was a big moment but, of course, to win the Italian Open was even bigger.

“I was very proud to win those two tournaments and to be the first Italian champion on The European Tour. It makes me really happy that with such a small number of players we have continued to have success on The European Tour. The quality of the coaching in Italy is very good and if more young people are encouraged to take up the game then the teachers and the facilities are there waiting for them.”

Florence-born Dassu, who celebrated his 60th birthday last November, would not again reach such tournament winning heights although he represented Europe in five Hennessy Cognac Cup matches, Italy in the World Cup (four times) and the Dunhill Cup and also became a prominent member of the Tournament Committee of The European Tour.

Nevertheless his achievements in 1976 sparked increased interest of the professional game in Italy which manifested itself four years later when Massimo Mannelli repeated the novelty of a home victory in the Italian Open at Circolo del Golf di Roma Acquasanta where, as a club member, he had in 1974 won the Italian Amateur Championship.

Mannelli, aged 24, would cement his name in the record books of The European Tour in April, 1980, with an extraordinary five shot win ahead of John Bland, Ken Brown, Sir Nick Faldo and John O’Leary after, coincidentally, being given a putting lesson by Dassu to heal a stroke with which the previous season he had averaged 37.38 putts per round!

Today Mannelli is the Head Professional at Acquasanta and works on the junior programme with the Federazione Italiana Golf (FIG). He said: “It was wonderful to win on the big stage of The European Tour but maybe it was too soon for me because it brought a lot of pressure. In fact Sam Torrance told me that maybe it would have been better for me personally if I had finished second but you know the result was good for Italy because it created a lot of publicity around the world for golf in our country.

“Now the game is becoming more and more popular and we have not only the golfers to thank for that but also people like Franco Chimenti, the current President of the Federazione Italiana Golf, and, of course, the late Mario Camicia who did so much for the game in Italy as an administrator and commentator.”

Camicia, who died in December, 2011, aged 70, was regarded as “Mr Golf” in Italy. For many years he was the Tournament Director of the Italian Open and then for more than 20 years, latterly for Sky Italia, he commentated on the game so promoting it from off the fairways.


 Mario Camicia  

George O’Grady, Chief Executive of The European Tour, said: “Mario epitomised everything that was and is special about Italian golf. He was a fervent supporter, a tireless administrator and Tournament Director and for many years a great and passionate TV commentator who contributed so immensely to the growth not only of all levels of Italian Golfer but the whole European Tour.”

Camicia’s commentaries were, indeed, folklore especially when Costantino Rocca had the Italian TV audience on the edge of their seats for the 1995 Open Championship at St Andrews. Rocca, who had opened his account on The European Tour with two wins in 1993 when he also became the first Italian to play in The Ryder Cup, created a moment of true theatre, captured by Camicia’s vivid commentary, by holing a 60 foot putt out of the Valley of Sin to tie John Daly in The 1995 Open Championship at the Home of Golf before losing the play-off.

Rocca, whose own fairytale story started when at the age of 15 while working in a polystyrene box factory he would sneak at night onto the course at Golf Club Bergamo L’Albenza armed with a torch and a two iron, would later that year help Europe win The Ryder Cup on American soil when he also became only the third player in history to make a hole in one in the biennial contest. He was again on the winning side in “Seve’s Team” at Club de Golf Valderrama in 1997 when he beat Tiger Woods 4 and 2 in the singles. He also claimed a mighty scalp in Sir Nick Faldo when he fended off the multiple-winning Major Champion to collect the BMW PGA Championship title at Wentworth Club in 1996.

Dassu and Mannelli are, of course, well aware of the changing face of the Italian Open and The European Tour and not simply because of the transparent reasons of prize money and golf courses. It is a fact, however, that Dassu earned £4,082 for his Italian Open win in 1976 and Mannelli £5,365 from a prize fund of £32,200 in 1980 compared to the €250,000 first prize on offer from a total of €1,500,000 this week and that Mannelli won on a course that measured 6,545 yards compared to the 7,208 yards of Golf Club Torino.

For back in the days when Dassu and Mannelli were winning, many observers viewed the game in Italy, rather like eating or driving fast cars, to be, quite simply, one of life’s supreme pleasures. The achievements of Rocca, and his global acclaim, elevated the professional game still further in Italy and even if its metamorphosis  has neither been that swift nor that easy, rather like Rocca’s own story since he turned professional in December, 1981, while attending the Italian Federation’s teaching school. The interest in the sport gathered pace with European Tour victories by Massimo Scarpa (2000) and Emanuele Canonica (2005) being followed by the arrival of the Molinari brothers – Edoardo and Francesco – and Matteo Manassero.


   Costantino Rocca and that putt at the 1995 Open  

In 1995 when Rocca’s “Open” putt was heard around the world there were 191 courses and 20 driving ranges in Italy and from a population of 58 million little more than 40,000 played the game with a total of 4,100 juniors. Today the Federazione Italiana Golf reports that there are 278 courses, 175 driving ranges, 100,000 golfers and, most significantly, 11,337 registered Under-18 players with 550  teaching professionals.

Luca Salvetti, PGAs of Europe Board Member and Professional at the On Learning Golf Academy (O.L.G.A.) at Chervo Golf Hotel Spa & Resort, San Vigilio, Lake Garda, said: “The quality of the coaches is extremely high which is very important because the figures support the fact that from a relatively small base of junior players compared with many other countries we have a high number of international players going out on Tour. I am confident that these numbers will significantly grow as the popularity of the game continues to increase enhanced by the outstanding performances today of Francesco, Eduardo and Matteo.”

Nicola Pomponi, commentator for Sky Italia and also a professional at O.L.G.A., explained: “Television audience figures are increasing in Italy and the game is being watched in more homes than ever before. The Ryder Cup, of course, attracts the most viewers in Italy with an audience of 1,200,000 in 2012 and the increase in interest was reflected by the figures for this year’s Open Championship which were watched here by 47 % more people than the previous year.”

Edoardo and Francesco Molinari, apart from being European Tour champions and successful Ryder Cup winners, steered Italy in 2009 to a famous, first ever World Cup victory at Mission Hills in China. This week’s 70th Open de Italia Lindt is taking place on their home course and while Edoardo is sidelined through injury, Francesco will be hoping to put his local knowledge to good use.

Meanwhile Manassero, whose record breaking start to his career continued when at the age of 20 years and 37 days he became in May the youngest winner of the flagship BMW PGA Championship, would enjoy nothing more than to record his fifth European Tour win this week by following Dassu, Mannelli and Francesco Molinari, who won the title in 2006 at Castello di Tolcinasco, as the fourth “home” champion since the Italian Open became part of The European Tour.

Manaserro, who will celebrate his 21st birthday next April, was born 21 years after The European Tour started in 1972. The Open de Italia Lindt this week will represent the 141st time that Tour competition has been hosted in Italy – 52 European Tour events, 79 Challenge Tour, eight Senior Tour and two World Cups – and Dassu and Mannelli, who will be there as a spectator at the start of the week, will deem it appropriate along with their fellow compatriots if the 20th victory by an Italian golfer on The European Tour arrives in Turin this week.


 Edoardo and Francesco Molinari - World Cup winners!


Matteo Manassero, 2013 BMW PGA Champion