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Matteo Manassero: The rise, the fall and the remarkable comeback

Matteo Manassero: The rise, the fall and the remarkable comeback

By Mathieu Wood

Highs and lows. We all have them, elite athletes included. But perhaps none more so than to the extent of Matteo Manassero. It is for that very reason that his long-awaited return to the winner’s circle on the DP World Tour struck a chord with people from both inside and outside the game of golf.

Here was a man who had the world at his feet as a teenager on the global stage and yet within a few years or so was in such a bad place he had to take time away from the sport. 

As commentator Dominik Holyer eloquently put it on the television coverage immediately after Manassero sank the winning putt at Glendower Golf Club, the Italian had come back from the depths of golfing despair. 

It is hard to remember a victory in golf in recent memory that has prompted such a unanimous reaction of overwhelming joy.

Such was his immediate entrance to the professional game, in becoming the youngest winner on the DP World Tour at 17, following a stellar amateur career it should be added, both the world of golf and the public have long since formed a bond with Manassero.

The steady decline of his form in the years that followed his victory at the BMW PGA Championship in 2013 – his fourth on Tour – is well known.

However, resolve and resilience – characteristics of any champion – were never lacking in Manassero, who has rebuilt his career in recent years from the lower echelons. Throughout, he has done it in a humble manner that is the essence of why he is such a popular figure.

Talent is one thing, but perseverance is a trait that is perhaps just as important, if not more so.

His victory in South Africa marked the end of the latest chapter in his story, one that so many of us continue to be fascinated by.

Here, we take a closer look at how Manassero rose to quick acclaim, the subsequent struggles, and his return to form.

First steps in golf and amateur success

Born in Negrar, Italy, Manassero first started playing golf when he was three years old and like so many of us was hooked from his first swing of a club. In an interview with the DP World Tour in 2011, he spoke of how he knew from a young age his goal was to become a professional. His talent was later spotted and nurtured by former Tour professional Alberto Binaghi and success came quickly on the amateur stage. At the age of 16, he became the youngest winner of the British Amateur Championship in 2009, later that year finishing as the low amateur in The Open at Turnberry, playing alongside the great Tom Watson over the first two rounds, before ending the year as the amateur World Number One. "Playing with Tom Watson, I grew up a little bit," he said of the experience. "Even if he didn't say something to you, even if he didn't give you advice, you have grown up just watching him. It was great." In April 2010, he then made the cut in the Masters Tournament at Augusta National on his debut, still only 16.

Manassero Tom Watson
Matteo Manassero drew inspiration from playing alongside Tom Watson, who almost went on to win the 2009 Open at Turnberry

Quick rise to fame

Within weeks he took the decision to turn professional, becoming the second youngest player in DP World Tour history. Who was younger I hear you ask? Well, only Seve Ballesteros. Manassero would finish in a tie for 29th on his debut as a professional in his home country. Later that season, he would narrowly miss out on his first professional victory at the Rolex Trophy in Switzerland on the European Challenge Tour. But it wasn’t long before that breakthrough triumph in the paid ranks came. He would rewrite the DP World Tour record books at the Castelló Masters Costa Azahar, becoming its youngest winner – a record he still holds. At 17 years and 188 days, he beat the previous record set by New Zealand’s Danny Lee, who was 18 years and 213 days old when he won the 2008 Johnnie Walker Classic. In doing so, he broke Ballesteros’ record as the youngest full DP World Tour member by 12 days. He would win for a second time the following year, holding off challenges from Grégory Bourdy and Rory McIlroy to win the Maybank Malaysian Open, two days before his 18th birthday. He then made it three titles in as many DP World Tour seasons, with a play-off triumph over then-Major Champion Louis Ooosthuizen in Singapore in November 2012. All achieved while still a teenager. But the biggest victory of his career was to follow with another play-off success in the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth Club, becoming the youngest winner of the prestigious event. Within weeks of that triumph, he reached a high of 25th on the Official World Golf Ranking, still only 20. He went on to finish that season a career-high tenth on the Race to Dubai Rankings.

Manassero BMW PGA 2013-169522630
Manassero beat Simon Khan and Marc Warren in a play-off to become the youngest winner of the BMW PGA Championship

The fall

Later that summer in 2013, he made slight changes to his swing before also changing club manufacturer. He began the 2014 season with the aim of making Paul McGinley's European Ryder Cup team at Gleneagles, but his bid stalled as he went on to make just two top 10s. Victory at Wentworth ensured his place on the DP World Tour for five seasons, but a steady decline materialised before he lost his full playing privileges in 2018. From being viewed alongside McIlroy as a poster boy for European golf, Manassero became stuck in the golfing doldrums. In 2019 he made just one cut in 18 worldwide starts and then Covid-19 hit, leaving him with limited playing opportunities and dropping to 1,805th on the Official World Golf Ranking.

Starting afresh, Alps Tour and graduating from the Challenge Tour

Such was the torment the game was causing him, he stepped away from it for a few months."I literally couldn’t play anymore," he wrote in a Player Blog with the DP World Tour towards the end of last year. "Golf had become too heavy on me. That was a tough realisation. I had always played golf in a free and joyful way, but I knew I had to rebuild myself." He made the decision to take some starts on both the Nordic Golf League and the Alps Tour, winning his first professional title in more than seven years on the latter at the Toscana Alps Open in September 2020. Two runner-up finishes would follow on the Alps Tour, the third division of European golf, in early 2021 before returning to the Challenge Tour for the first of two winless seasons at that level. But belief in his game was all the while growing, and he won twice last season as he graduated back to the DP World Tour. The first of those, achieved in Denmark, was on the weekend of the ten-year anniversary of his victory at the BMW PGA Championship. A second followed a couple of months later on home soil, with both triumphs coming after he began to work with two-time DP World Tour winner Søren Hansen at the end of 2022. "With both of those victories on the Challenge Tour (in Copenhagen and Rome) I felt as good as I’ve ever felt at a golf tournament," said Manassero, who finished ninth on the season-long Road to Mallorca Rankings.

Completes comeback with emotional triumph

In the revealing Player Blog, Manassero expressed how he believed he would enjoy the 2024 season on the DP World Tour more than when he was being talked about so highly as a teenager. He would make the cut in his first two starts of the season, including finishing in a tie for fifth at the Investec South African Open Championship. But, being back on the DP World Tour was never going to plain sailing and he missed five of his next six cuts. However, his tenth start of the season would result in the most joyous moment of his career. After carding a career-low 61 in the second round at the Jonsson Workwear Open, the 30-year-old withstood fierce competition in the final round from a host of title challengers to close out with four consecutive birdies either side of a two-hour-and-27-minute storm delay to win once again on the DP World Tour, 3,942 days since his last. "This is the best day of my life on a golf course for sure," said an elated Manassero at the trophy presentation.

Now, as a result of his victory, Manassero is back inside the world's top 200 for the first time since March 2015, climbing from 381 to 182. He is also in line for qualification to represent Italy at this summer's Olympic Games in France.

This is a story of a player whose resilience is being rewarded.

Everyone, both those inside and outside the sport, will be willing Manassero to continue his career resurgence.

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