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Teen golf prodigy Manassero launches professional career

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Matteo Manassero on turning pro
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Matteo Manassero launches professional golf career with two-under-par 70 at Italian Open
  • The 17-year-old was the youngest amateur to make the halfway cut at the Masters
  • He challenged golfing great Seve Ballesteros to a chipping duel at the age of four
  • Manassero is part of a golfing resurgence in Italy with the Molinari brothers

(CNN) -- From the day he challenged the great Seve Ballesteros to a chipping contest at the age of four, Matteo Manassero has been a precocious golf talent.

The Italian, who last month became the youngest player to make the halfway cut at the Masters in Augusta, has launched his professional career 17 days after his 17th birthday.

Manassero, who was also the leading amateur at last year's British Open and topped the non-paid players' world rankings for 18 weeks, made a solid start on Thursday.

He carded a two-under-par 70 in the opening round of his home Italian Open which left him three shots off the lead.

He outshone his playing partner, European Ryder Cup captain and seven-time Order of Merit winner Colin Montgomerie, who could only manage 76 on a day marred by a two-hour rain delay.

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"He was very impressive, to do that as a 17-year-old today," the 46-year-old Montgomerie told the European Tour Web site.

"He has a good future ahead of him and I wish him all the best."

Manassero was also pleased with his efforts.

"It was a good round, I played steady for 18 holes. I really liked how I played today. I was a little nervous, like always in big tournaments, but fortunately I'm getting used to it," he said.

"I don't want to rewind any part of my game. I didn't putt that well but I didn't have many chances, so I like the way I played and hopefully it will stay like this."

Manassero is used to the big stage. He made his British Open at Turnberry last year, teeing off with American golf legend Tom Watson and Spanish star Sergio Garcia.

Watson ended up losing an emotional playoff to Stewart Cink, while Manassero tied for 13th -- and Garcia finished back in 38th.

"I was nervous, it was a big crowd clapping me," Manassero told CNN before the Italian Open, breaking into a smile.

His successes at Turnberry and then Augusta, where he at at 16 years and 11 months and 22 days he was almost two years younger than Bobby Cole's previous record, have given him a taste of things to come.

"I was on the first page of the biggest newspaper in Italy," Manassero said. "I'm still the same, but life is different.

"Pro-life is what I want. I'm really looking forward to it. Fitness and practicing, normal training, I don't want to do different stuff. I've always done those and I'll keep like this."

Manassero, who is from the province of Verona in northern Italy, recalled the time when he met Spanish legend Ballesteros, a five-time major winner.

"I challenged him on the putting green of my home club. He was chipping and they introduced him to me and then we started started chipping a little, and I holed a chip. That was a great moment," he said.

His caddy is Alberto Binaghi, a former European Tour player and now the Italian team coach.

Binaghi has overseen a resurgence in Italian golf that has taken Edoardo and Francesco Molinari into the world's top-50, with the brothers winning the 2009 World Cup teams event.

"Ten years ago it was probably a rich sport and was difficult to play and it was expensive, but now the situation has changed and there are more young people wanting to play golf," Francesco Molinari, ranked 41st, told CNN of the sport in his home country.

Four players shared the clubhouse lead at the Royal Park course in Turin, with Englishmen Graeme Storm and Robert Rock carding 67 along with Australia's Marcus Fraser and Scotland's Paul Lawrie.

There were still 18 players yet to complete their opening rounds when the day's play came to a halt.