No other player this century has shown the same level of prodigious talent, with the trophy cabinet to match, than Matteo Manassero.
At 16, he became the youngest winner of the Amateur Championship in 2009, with Silver Medal honours following at that year’s Open. There was no let up in 2010. He became, at the time, the youngest player to make the cut at the Masters, then earned low amateur honours two days later.
Without hesitation, Manassero entered the professional ranks in May 2010 and, four months later, he became the youngest player to win on the European Tour at the Castello Masters. He was just 17 years and 188 days.
He had tour title No.2 to his name before he turned 18. To compare that to other young talents, Sergio Garcia won his first title at 19 and 176 days, while Rory McIlroy was 19 and 273 days.
In hailing from Italy, a country not known for its golfing prowess, Manassero’s achievements seemed all the more spectacular. But his fall from grace over the past five years - since his fourth win at the BMW PGA Championship in 2013 - has been astonishing.
From his win at Wentworth, the Italian’s gradual decline begun. After a fourth-placed finish at the Nordea Masters in his next event, he went without a top 20 for his next 15 events up until the end of the year.
In 2014, meanwhile, he mustered just two top tens, one of which was a
fourth-placed finish in the Scottish Open at Royal Aberdeen.
As a result, by the time the Ryder Cup rolled around at Gleneagles, Manassero was nowhere to be seen. That was a near improbable scenario a year earlier when Paul McGinley had dubbed him ‘the future of the Europea Tour, just like Seve was’, while a leading UK newspaper published an article that pitted Manassero and Jordan Spieth against one other as the ‘young guns who could take Gleneagles by storm’. Only one of those did.
But it was 2015 when the alarm bells really started to ring. In 22 events, he made five cuts, cashing €91,764 to place 167th in the Race to Dubai. At that year’s Irish Open at Royal County Down, he posted a ten-over-par 81 in the second round to start a run of 15 missed cuts that stretched into the start of 2016.
When he arrived at Castle Stuart for the Scottish Open that July, Manassero had played 16 events without a top ten and, after a solid round of 71 on the first day, he opened up to bunkered about the struggles he had faced over the past couple of years.
“It’s been a really tough time about a lot of things: with myself and more technical things,” he said. “There were a lot of downs and some pretty deep ones at that but it’s something that a person has to face. Being out here, being under pressure and having to perform because people expect you to perform, it just increased the problems even further and that’s what it was.
“When you shoot 80 and you feel like you can’t do much better – it’s just bad. I was trying but every time I had an important shot, I was missing. It was such a bad feeling.”
Manassero followed up his 71 with rounds of 67, 68 and 70 to finish third that week – his best finish since his win at the BMW PGA – and there was real belief that he had turned a corner. He posted on Instagram: “It was a long and difficult journey but this weekend was pretty much what I was dreaming about for the last 20 months or so. It was a great week.”
Alas, the positivity was short-lived. He has only managed two top tens in 61 events since – both of which came in 2017. The difference this season, though, is that the five-year exemption from his victory in the European Tour’s flagship event is up, meaning if he doesn’t break into the top 110 of the Race to Dubai, he loses his card and is off to the ruthless six-day test that is Q-School in November.
In trying to pinpoint the root of Manassero’s slump, what his situation does expose is the sheer brutality and fragility of life on tour. A career as a professional golfer is longer than most other sports and, in five years, the Italian has gone from potential major champion to potentially playing his golf on a second-tier circuit in 2019.
There’s also a very topical issue likely to be behind Manassero’s woes: his length (or lack of it) off the tee.
He’s a minnow in comparison to most of his European Tour peers, with fellow short hitter Graeme McDowell recently telling No Laying Up that he now has to cherry-pick what events he plays because he knows that before even teeing it up on some courses, he has no chance of contending.
Manassero is very much in that mould, highlighting the frailty of players not blessed with power. The bad news for him? His fellow tour pros are only going to get longer.
This week, Manassero is amongst 156 other players battling it out for one of roughly 25 cards at European Tour Q-School and, given his struggles, it’s easy to overlook his stellar achievements considering how long ago they were. Regardless of what happens in his card-saving quest at Lumine over the next week or so, he has still enjoyed a better career than the vast majority of his European Tour peers, some of whom have spent more than a decade just trying to break through.
That being said, there’s no escaping that, for a player once destined to reach the pinnacle of the game, it’s a case of potential unfulfilled. There’s still time though, and plenty of it. After all, despite eight full seasons on the European Tour, Manassero – now world No.536 – is still only 25.