MARANA, Ariz. — Forget Bubba Watson and J.B. Holmes. Size doesn’t matter. Look at Luke Donald and Matteo Manassero. You don’t need to be Sherlock to work out that the Englishman and the Italian would have to drive off the forward tees to keep up with golf’s heavyweight detective duo. But, fortunately for the Europeans, they got to fight it out in their own private lightweight division in Round Three.
Donald, the experienced prizefighter, handed out a match play lesson to the 17-year-old wonder kid, pounding him with five birdies on the front nine with his trademark short game and deadly putter. Precisely those talents that made it easy for Colin Montgomerie to hand the 33-year-old Donald a wildcard for last year’s Ryder Cup.
Manassero showed his spirit and strength to fight back with two late birdies to keep the match going, but he ran out of holes and lost 3 and 2. Still, he can head home to Verona with pride and with yet more knowledge and experience tucked away in his locker after victories against World No. 8 Steve Stricker and Charl Schwartzel. We’ll be seeing a lot more from Manassero, who became the youngest champion in European Tour history with his victory at the Castellon Masters in Spain last October. That wasn’t his first time making history, either. He became the youngest British Amateur champion in 2009, and won the low amateur prize at the 2010 Masters and British Open.
“To take out Stricker and Schwartzel, for a 17 year-old, he’s ahead of the curve,” said Donald. “He’s not a modern-day player. Like me, he’s not going to overpower courses. But he’s got a great touch around the greens and he’s a great putter. He’s going to be a star.”
But this day belonged to Donald. His game is designed for match play and he knows it.
“I would like to play more of it,” he said. “I enjoy its urgency. I seem to thrive on that match play feeling.”
Is he a match play brute?
“My consistency is my strength,” Donald said. “I don’t give holes away. Hopefully opponents see that and it makes them change their strategy, force things, and make mistakes.”
Donald had never reached the quarterfinals of this tournament before defeating Manassero on Friday, but he has a quiet confidence about his chances this weekend.
“Last year’s winner Ian Poulter is not a terribly big hitter,” Donald said when it was suggested that his lack of length might ultimately prove his downfall.
Donald speaks softly, but he is a feisty little fellow. He’s realistic, too, though.
“If I catch Bubba on a good day and he’s shooting the lights out, it’s going to be tough,” Donald said. “But I can still rely on my short game and my putting.”
Fortunately for Donald, he gets Ryan Moore, not Watson in the quarterfinal match, which begins Saturday morning at 9:10 a.m. Tiger Woods once described Donald as “a plodder.” That style appears to be working nicely. So far.