ROME – While the return of Tiger Woods will be the focus of the Masters, Italian fans will have a different storyline to follow.
For the first time, three Italians have qualified to play at Augusta National next month. Edoardo and Francesco Molinari will become the first brothers to participate in the same Masters since Jumbo and Joe Ozaki in 2000. Also, 16-year-old Matteo Manassero – the British Amateur champion – will become the youngest golfer ever at the Masters.
“Having two professionals plus an amateur is really something historic,” Francesco Molinari said in a recent phone interview from his home in London. “Not that long ago something like this happening was unthinkable.
“There will certainly be more people watching the Masters on TV in Italy, maybe even people who don’t play golf, or are just starting to play. We’re hoping more people become passionate about the sport and start playing golf.”
Golf is a minor and still mostly exclusive sport in Italy, which only last year crossed the threshold of 100,000 players. The only real champion the country has produced is Costantino Rocca, who lost a British Open playoff to John Daly at St. Andrews in 1995 and beat Tiger Woods in a singles match at the 1997 Ryder Cup.
“It’s great to see three Italians playing in a major, especially the Masters,” Rocca told The Associated Press. “It fills me with pride.”
The Molinaris recall watching Rocca play in the final pairing with Woods at the 1997 Masters, which Woods won by 12 shots.
Then the brothers got a firsthand look at Woods when Edoardo played in his first Masters in 2006 as the U.S. Amateur champion, who is traditionally paired with the previous year’s winner for the opening two rounds.
“I have a lot of great memories from that week. The only thing I would have liked to change was my score,” Edoardo – who failed to make the cut – said in an e-mail to the AP. “I’m hoping to do better this year.
“In 2006 I was still an amateur and my game certainly wasn’t at the level it’s at now. It’s really tough to play well the first time there because the course is so difficult and there are some very particular holes that require a lot of experience.”
Francesco caddied for his brother at Augusta in 2006 but has never played Augusta.
“I remember a lot of my brother’s shots from 2006, which could be helpful,” he said.
Francesco also remembers some of Woods’ shots from four years ago. While he was doing his best to help his brother, Francesco was also watching Woods closely.
“For a first-year professional, having the chance to watch Tiger was an incredible experience,” he said. “I learned a lot of things.”
The Masters invites the top 50 in the final world ranking of the year. Francesco finished 2009 at No. 38 and Edoardo was 48.
In November, the Molinaris became the first brothers to win the World Cup of Golf, giving Italy its first title in the team event with a one-stroke victory over Sweden and Ireland in Shenzhen, China.
The victory made the front page of the football-focused national sports newspaper, the Gazzetta dello Sport.
“Becoming world champion in any sport is always something special,” Francesco said. “For everyone – even the people who don’t follow the sport in question.”
The Molinaris’ breakthrough didn’t happen overnight, though, and that stands in sharp contrast to the way Manassero followed up his British Amateur win with a 13th-place finish in the British Open, playing solidly the first two rounds at Turnberry alongside 59-year-old runner-up Tom Watson.
Manassero who won’t turn 17 until eight days after the Masters, meaning he’ll break the previous record for the youngest player at Augusta – Tommy Jacobs, who was 17 years, 1 month, 21 days when he competed in 1952.
“It’s always nice to break records, but I don’t feel any pressure,” Manassero said.
Ryo Ishikawa of Japan, who played his first Masters last year at age 17, saw Manassero in the British Open last year at Turnberry and considers him a “great, great player.” Ishikawa had already won pro events before his first trip to the Masters, but he recalled being excited to be there and expects the Italian teenager to feel the same.
Manassero said he would like to make the cut, although he’s not creating any specific goals for himself. That follows the advice that the 53-year-old Rocca gave him a few weeks ago.
“Manassero is 16 years old, so nobody should tell him he’s got to do well or that he has to win,” Rocca said. “It should be a fantastic experience for him and he should take it seriously, but without any pressure. He should try and learn how to play that course.
“I explained a few things to him. That some holes might require three putts, and that it’s better to use all three, otherwise you’re going to need five.”
Manassero’s naturally low trajectory is a perfect fit for windy links courses, where he’s had his biggest successes so far. Augusta National is the opposite. It is known for its ultra-fast, undulating greens that put a premium on high approach shots.
“I’ve seen him play and he can also hit it high,” Rocca said. “He’s got a real feeling for the ball. Of course he can’t expect to score 10 under or 5 under. Considering this is his first year playing there, he should try and steal some secrets about the course and ask how to play certain greens.”
Manassero will have his national team coach, Alberto Binaghi, as his caddie at Augusta. Tradition will put him with defending champion Angel Cabrera of Argentina the first two days. And who will be the third?
“Tiger maybe. Why not? Or (Phil) Mickelson,” Manassero said.
Even with all the pressure and attention Woods will face in his first tournament back after a sex scandal?
“Sure, there’s no problem – he’s still Tiger,” Manassero said.
After the Masters, Manassero will make his pro debut at the Italian Open in May. Without sponsors for now, he still wears his national golf team shirt, clarifying that it’s not the shirt for Italy’s national football team.
Football, of course, remains Italy’s top sport by a large margin. Come April, though, the Masters is sure to gain some viewers in Italy.