EIGHTEEN-year-old Matteo Manassero is the man – or rather boy – to catch after a course record-equalling start to the Andalucian Open at Aloha. The young Italian star, still in with a chance of qualifying for next month’s US Masters, fired an eight-under-par 64 for a three-stroke lead.
Joint second are ex-Ryder Cup Swede Niclas Fasth, English duo Anthony Wall and qualifying school graduate Lloyd Kennedy, South African Open champion Hennie Otto and Spaniard Eduardo de la Riva.
Manassero is currently 63rd in the world and has this tournament and next week’s Hassan Trophy in Morocco to try to make it into the top 50 for Augusta. He was there as British Amateur champion two years ago, made the halfway cut and six months later became the European Tour’s youngest-ever winner.
That came at Sergio Garcia’s home course in Castellon and being back on Spanish soil brought back memories. “It’s quite similar, but a little bit more hilly,” Manassero said after matching the score of Lee Westwood en route to his victory in the same event in 2007.
Seven of the par-4s are under 400 yards and the teenager, who ranks 173rd out of 185 in driving distance on the circuit, added: “It’s a course that suits me and, hopefully, it will be my week. You have to put the ball in play and then do well around the greens. I did pretty much everything right apart from one shot.”
He bogeyed the seventh, his 16th, after a poor pitch, but already had seven birdies on his card and finished with two more.
Fasth, a member of Europe’s winning side at The Belfry a decade ago, had to fall back on his career earnings to keep his Tour card last year after slumping to 132nd on the money-list.
The 39-year-old, with only one top-three finish in the last four seasons, eagled the long 16th and had six birdies to reach six under, but finished with his third bogey.
Former Masters champion Mike Weir, over from Canada trying to reignite his career following elbow surgery, opened with a 68, while Abu Dhabi winner Robert Rock and tournament host Miguel Angel Jimenez returned 69s playing with Manassero.
Rock, conqueror of Tiger Woods in January, is another just outside the top 50 and winning on Sunday could virtually clinch an Augusta debut for him, while Manassero would still have to play well next week.
Compared to some of their exploits earlier in the season, it was a disappointing opening day for the 11 Scots in the field. Alastair Forsyth, who received an invitation for the event, David Drysdale and Gary Orr all shot 71s to lie in a share of 42nd.
George Murray and Richie Ramsay opened with 72s, one fewer than Colin Montgomerie, with Marc Warren and Steven O’Hara having 74s. Stephen Gallacher (75), Craig Lee (76) and Peter Whiteford (77) are all further down the leaderboard.