Masters debut with a difference

Alberto Binaghi is happy to have made it in to next month’s Masters – even if it is as a caddie, though no ordinary one.

Alberto Binaghi dreamt of becoming a Juventus footballer or an Olympic ski champion when he was growing up. Or both, of course.
In the end he excelled most at golf, but when he made his European Tour debut in Majorca in 1988 nobody could have guessed that 22 years later the Italian would be preparing for a debut in The Masters at Augusta next month.
As a caddie, that is, not as a golfer, but as no ordinary caddie.
The journey has certainly been an eventful one.
Binaghi made 14 trips to the Tour qualifying school and, most famously, was struck by lightning during one of them and taken to hospital.
He made it through only five of those times and in the seasons that followed he never won and never finished higher than 80th on the money list.
The 45-year-old’s last appearance on the circuit as a player was five years ago. Since then Binaghi has carved out a new career for himself by teaching the game rather than playing it and as coach to his national team the phenomenal talent that is Matteo Manassero has come out from under his wing.
Binaghi caddied for him when he became the youngest winner of the British amateur title last June and again when he finished a spectacular 13th in The Open at Turnberry a month later.
Soon they will be together again when Manassero, still only 16, becomes the youngest Masters participant – one of an unprecedented four teenagers in the opening major of the season.
It is a thrill for both of them, of course, and it should be too for Seve Ballesteros.
Back in 1997 Ballesteros, Ryder Cup captain at the time, and Binaghi were together on the practice putting green at Gardagolf, near Manassero’s home in Verona.
The small boy, only four at the time, was there watching and said to Binaghi: “I want a match against Seve.”
Ballesteros agreed to it there and then – and from the side of the green Manassero chipped the ball into the hole!
The Spanish star has remained his hero ever since.
“Seve was a true idol because he was different from the others,” says Manassero. “And it’s a different game now – Seve was playing another golf.”
Binaghi was kept aware of the youngster’s development and by the time he was 13 was keen to have him as part of the Italian squad.
“We knew he was special and I wanted him to compete with the best amateurs,” he recalls. “We knew he had the head to do it.
“He was so good under pressure. As soon as I saw him in action against other teams I knew he was going to be a good player.
“He started to play very well at the start of last year and I told his father I was sure he was going to win something during the season – something serious.”
Manassero had played one event on the Challenge Tour at Gardagolf at 13, but pulled out after the opening round.
Three years on, however, an invitation to the Italian Open – his first full Tour event – saw him not only make the cut, but shoot a closing 67 and finish 25th.
Then came the British Amateur. He broke the course record at West Lancs with an opening 65 and in the match play at Formby he was behind only once in the six games it took him to lift the title.
“He was very impressive,” added Binaghi. “He never got a club wrong. Not because I was choosing – I was helping – but because he has such good control of the ball.
“His consistency and his ability to handle pressure are the best things about him. That’s why I thought he would play a very good Open. It’s tough conditions and you have to work the ball.”
Manassero’s juices – and those of Binaghi – were going to be flowing no matter who they played with, but to have Tom Watson and Sergio Garcia as partners put the spotlight on him even more.
It served only to bring the best out of him. His two over total was only four away from the play-off between Watson and Cink and only one away from the lowest ever score by an amateur in Open history.
“To be honest I respect his age off the course, but on it I don’t. In the third round he wasted a few shots and when somebody said ‘Yeah, but he’s only 16’ I just said ‘Away from the course yes, but on the course no.
“On the course he’s a player – and he’s a good player. I think he has a chance at least to make the cut in The Masters.”
By now Manassero has played six European Tour events and made the cut in five of them, but although he is turning professional after Augusta his education goes on and he has to fit his build-up to The Masters around his school work.
He describes Binaghi as “like an uncle” and for the former Tour player a trip to compete at Augusta is what he has always hoped for, of course.
“I wanted to go in a different way, to play,” he says. “But it’s OK – it’s still a good thing.”