There’s no substitute for tough love. Just ask Matteo Manassero, who may have had plenty of cuddles after becoming the forgotten man of European golf but reckons getting his backside kicked just as often is the reason he is finally starting to see light at the end of a dark tunnel.
The last two years for Manassero have been a far cry from when the Italian became the youngest Amateur champion at 16 in 2009 at Formby, won the Silver Medal as he finished 13th in the Open Championship at Turnberry a month later then claimed four European Tour triumphs, including the BMW PGA Championship, by the time he was 20.
Now 23, he has slipped to 596th in the world rankings, having managed just two top-ten finishes since the start of 2014. The last of those came in the Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open at Royal Aberdeen exactly two years ago. Albeit at a different venue, the same event is bringing out the best in Manassero again, though a share of 12th in the Nordea Masters and 13th in the BMW International Open in recent weeks were welcome signs of normal service being resumed.
“Very glad to see you back,” said Tim Barter as he welcomed Manassero to the Sky Cart for his post-round interview after taking advantage of more benign conditions at Castle Stuart to card a 67 for a six-under total to sit just two off the lead, held by Swede Alex Noren, at the halfway stage in the £3.25 million event. The fact it was the first time he had encountered that golfing gizmo was an indication on its own of Manassero having been in the wilderness.
“It’s a much better situation I’m in now,” he admitted, having signed for six birdies as he backed up a solid 71 in which he hit 16 greens in regulation in Thursday’s Highland hoolie. “I got a lot of help. The people beside me were always helping. They weren’t just cuddling me. They were telling me off, too. You only want cuddles when you don’t feel good. But I found a way to get out of it myself. It was a slow process, it didn’t just click.”
Eyebrows were raised when Manassero changed equipment when he was ripping up the record books. He insists, though, that a swing change was at the root of his downward spiral. “The change was too early to get into from an athletic point of view, but I’m more confident about my game again and also feel better with myself on the golf course. I am on the right track.”
Danny Lee’s track was due to take him to West Virginia this week for a title defence in the Greenbrier Classic only to make a late detour here after that event was cancelled due to recent flooding. Having secured the last of eight invitations up for grabs, the 25-year-old bounced back brilliantly from a last-hole double-bogey on Thursday by signing for a flawless 66. That effort raised $3,000 for the relief efforts in West Virginia as Lee is donating $500 for every birdie and $1,000 for every eagle he makes here. “It is really unfortunate what happened in West Virginia so I was happy to make a lot of birdies today and hopefully I can make some more over the next couple of days and put some eagles in there, too,” he said.
On a day when a number of tees were moved forward – the European Tour admitted a mistake by not taking that step on Thursday, when the wind gusts reached 43mph – Noren moved into pole position after a 66 while Manassero was joined on 138 by South African Branden Grace, who lost in a play-off to Phil Mickelson at this venue three years ago and has returned on the back of top-ten finishes in both the US Open and the WGC Bridgestone Invitational. “I like the type of golf you have to play around this place,” said the world No 10 after carding seven birdies in a 67.
Others heading into the weekend close to the lead in the race for a £541,660 top prize include three-time major champion Padraig Harrington and 2008 winner Graeme McDowell, both on five-under, but Mickelson, despite a spirited 69, has nine shots to make up in his bid to become the “King of Castle Stuart” for a second time.