Manassero on the cusp
A lot of people have been asking Matteo Manassero about Tom Watson this week, which is no great surprise. The Italian teenager played with the five-time Claret Jug winner on his Open debut at Turnberry in 2009, watching and learning from the master craftsman for the first two rounds.
"I learnt a lot from Tom," the 18-year-old Manassero, who plays in his second Open Championship this week at Royal St George's, told BBC Sport. "He just seemed really comfortable - which you would expect from someone who has won five Opens. He just seemed to know how to handle it.
"He told me to keep my putting stroke the way it was and to keep doing what I was doing, and it was really important to hear that from him. It was great to have him beside me for those two days."
But it was the third man in the grouping, Sergio Garcia, who perhaps had more relevant lessons to teach. There are more 'New Seves' in European golf than you can shake a rake at - and not one of them has come up to scratch. But it is Ballesteros' fellow Spaniard Garcia whose career has disappointed most.
Matteo Manassero has enjoyed a strong start to his fledgling career. Photo: Getty Images
When Garcia came crashing into the public's consciousness in 1999, courtesy of his duel with Tiger Woods at the USPGA, the buccaneering 19-year-old looked set to form one half of a great golfing rivalry for many years to come. But Garcia has learned that being the 'New Seve' and being Seve are two different things.
So when former Walker Cup captain Peter McEvoy anointed the kid from Verona another 'New Seve' a couple of years back, you could almost hear the groans emanating from clubhouses across the land: too much weight on slim shoulders, "haven't we heard this before?" and all that.
Like Garcia, Manassero was a sensation in the unpaid ranks, becoming the youngest-ever winner of the British Amateur Championship in 2009 (at the age of 16) and winning the Silver Medal at Turnberry (he finished 13th). He then became the youngest player to make the cut at the Masters in 2010, before turning pro a month later.
Fourteen months on, Manassero already has two wins - he became the youngest-ever winner on the European Tour in Valencia last year and captured the Malaysian Open in April - and is now up to 29 in the world rankings. So far, so Garcia. But while Garcia may not have landed that elusive major, there is one 'New Seve' among the ranks who has recently been doing very Seve-like things - and who might just live up to the billing.
"Rory McIlroy's win at the US Open was a great inspiration for every young golfer," says Manassero, "because it was the second time he had been very close to winning and he took the experience of Augusta [where McIlroy blew a four-stroke lead on the final day], learnt from it and went on to dominate at Congressional.
"It made me think I could pull the same thing off if I was in the same situation. It's not really about being as good as someone else, it's about winning when you find yourself in certain situations."
Manassero, in common with most sportsmen and women, is uncomfortable with being labelled the new anything, but happy to admit Ballesteros, who died in May, has been his idol since he first teed it up as a toddler.
"[His death] did affect me," says Manassero, whose English is impeccable. "I had the chance to meet him once, when I was four or five, and he was playing in the Italian Open. He was always going to be my hero, and not just mine, he's inspired so many kids.
"They will grow up wanting to be like Seve because he played the game differently from everybody else, he was special. His death affected a lot of people in the world of golf. He is my idol, but I know I can't be like him on the golf course - we are different types of players, but I'd like to emulate what he achieved."
While Ballesteros was a swashbuckler, leaping between the masts and the rigging, Manassero keeps it more on an even keel. Ranked ninth in driving accuracy this season, 17th in greens in regulation, his only weakness is his lack of distance off the tee - he is 201st this season out of 210 on the European Tour.
However, he is confident his game is tailored to links golf, and Royal St George's, where accuracy is key, in particular. "I need more body strength, better length off the tee, but I'm going in the right direction," says Manassero. "I've gained a few yards, I'm getting better scores, and if you improve yourself, you'll get more chances and hopefully be able to convert them.
"The Open is the major that suits me best, I feel comfortable on a links course. I don't have to hit the ball too far, I can be precise off the tee and with my iron shots and play with the wind. I have to fix my putting a little bit but I'm starting to play some really good golf and I'm feeling positive."
So while the great Garcia-Woods rivalry never transpired, perhaps Manassero-McIlroy will be where golf is at a couple of years down the line. "I'm number 29 in the world and people are saying my biggest rival in golf is Rory McIlroy," says Manassero, "but I don't know about that.
"Rory is a fantastic player and I'm only just starting to compete in majors. But it would be fantastic - for fans, for golf and for me and Rory. But I don't feel any pressure from the fans and the media, because I'm already full of expectations that I put on myself. Everything people say about me I expect to do."