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Long-term gain expected from the short-term pain of change

When Rory McIlroy decided to ring the changes with the tools of his trade last year, feverish observers worked themselves into a quite desperate fankle.

Tom Watson congratulates Manassero after their Open round at Turnberry. Picture: Christian Cooksey
Tom Watson congratulates Manassero after their Open round at Turnberry. Picture: Christian Cooksey

As the Northern Irishman toiled and trudged his way through the season, and the transition from old clubs to new sticks seemed to go about as smoothly as a camel ride during a period of seismic activity, the doom mongers were queuing up to pour scorn over his wholesale switch to Nike.

However, McIlroy would have the final say and delivered the old Harvey Smith salute to his detractors with a V for victory at the Australian Open. It was a triumphant end to a tumultuous campaign.

"Rory reacted like a great athlete and champion; he never blamed anything or anybody," said Matteo Manassero, another of European golf's bright young 20-somethings who has decided to freshen things up with a change to Callaway equipment and popped into St Andrews last week to launch, quite literally, the new Big Bertha driver.

"Changing equipment is never easy, it's very personal. It could become very difficult and it could get into your head a bit."

Manassero is not the type to allow any negative thoughts to fester in his mind, though. The softly-spoken Italian exudes a calm, considered optimism. He has every reason to be upbeat, of course.

At the age of 20, Manassero has four European Tour titles to his name. Last season, he became the youngest winner of the European Tour's flagship event, the BMW PGA Championship. In this rapid rise, there has barely been time for Manassero to draw breath let alone sit back and mull over the magnitude of his various triumphs.

"I probably should appreciate it more," admitted the former Amateur champion, who was only 16 when he captured the unpaid game's most decorated prize at Formby five years ago. "When I don't play well and people remind me just what I have achieved, I then have a think. It has been incredible, it's been great."

The years have hurtled by. In 2009, Tom Watson was rolling them back and Manassero had a front-row seat during the opening two rounds of that year's astonishing Open at Turnberry when the oldest swinger in town was waltzing his way to the top of the leaderboard.

"It seems a long time ago but I remember everything," reflected Manassero, who was eventually presented with the silver medal as the leading amateur while old, bold Tom was left to reflect on what might have been as the Claret Jug slipped from his clutches in a play-off.

"His attitude was amazing. That's the thing I really learned. He showed up with a smile and he finished with a smile. He had birdies, he had bogeys, he may even had a double bogey when I played with him. But he was just the same the whole way round. He is the guy who takes it all in his stride."

Watson returns to Scottish soil in September as captain of the USA team for the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles. Manassero would love a reunion but knows he has plenty of work to do if he is to force his way into Paul McGinley's Europe side. He has not registered a top-five finish on the Tour since the week after his BMW PGA Championship triumph last summer and is holding on grimly to 50th place in the world rankings.

"One thing that would be a dream come true would be the Ryder Cup, but I know it will be really tough," Manassero said. "Since Paul was elected Ryder Cup captain he has been so involved with us. He really makes us feel his presence. It feels like he is not leaving anybody behind and he is giving everybody the chance. Every time he sees you, he says, 'hope you have a good season, hope you make the team'."

Manassero know he needs to improve in this game where the quest for improvement is never ending. Not one of the Tour's biggest hitters - last season he was ranked 174th on the driving distance chart with an average batter of 273 yards - he made some tweaks to his swing at the tail end of the 2013 campaign and is confident the trials and tribulations that come with such fiddling will eventually give way to rewards.

"I probably gave up some good scores during that period but time is never wasted and it was something I had to do," he said. "I'm hitting it a bit longer. I've gained almost a club with my irons, and on a good drive I've gained about 10 yards. I needed to improve as a player. I always had a really consistent game and I could compete in some tournaments but not 100% of them. That was one reason I wanted to make the change; to be able to compete every week."

It may not be long before he is doing just that again.

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