VIRGINIA WATER, England — European golf has a new superstar. And he's just 20. "I am the happiest man in the world right now," said Italy's Matteo Manassero. This was the kid's coming of age, the youngest winner of the BMW PGA Championship. "Massive congrats," tweeted 23-year-old Rory McIlroy. "Makes me feel like an old man."
Manassero had already won three times in three years but this victory at the flagship event on the European Tour catapults him into the world's top 30 and into the upper echelons of the sport. Expect to see him make his Ryder Cup debut at Gleneagles next year. He was due for a grueling 36-hole U.S Open qualifier at nearby Walton Heath on Monday. Cancel that. Book the flight to Merion. He also wins a three-year exemption into the British Open. The $1 million first prize might come in handy, too.
Manassero wears Kermit-green trousers on Sundays in honor of his hero Seve Ballesteros and, like Seve, he has a short game and shot-making imagination to challenge for any title. Like Seve, this young gentleman of Verona has charm and a smile that people and TV cameras love. He has guts, too. Four times he played the 18th hole in the playoff with Simon Khan, the 2010 champion who's twice Manassero's age, and 32-year-old Marc Warren, having finished tied at 10 under par. His nerve outlasted them both. Warren fell at the first extra hole after finding the water in front of the green. Khan matched Manassero with putts and up-and-downs from bunkers until slapping his approach into the water at the fourth time of asking.
How impressive is this victory? The cream of European golf jetted in to London. Ryder Cup stars McIlroy, Luke Donald, Ian Poulter and Graeme McDowell all missed the cut. Lee Westwood turned 40 last month and has been trying to win this event for 20 years. Manassero only turned 20 last month. If McIlroy feels like an old man, Westwood must feel like grandpa. Especially after the Sunday he endured.
Westwood was reveling in his new nickname of the short game magician, as Ernie Els dubbed him. But, in the final round, Westwood conjured up the ultimate trick: he made himself disappear. His vanishing act began with bogeys on the 6th and 7th. He clawed a shot back with a birdie at the 8th but his chances of victory disappeared in a puff of smoke with a bogey at the 10th, a double bogey seven at the par-five 12th and another dropped shot at the 14th. He missed tiddler putts, hooked tee shots into Wentworth's dense Surrey woodland and lost his touch with his wedge, too. In truth, where New Lee had played beautifully to give himself a chance to win perhaps the biggest tournament of his career, Old Lee returned to ensure that he'd fly home to Florida with more to worry about than mere jet lag. From the 6th, the holes shrunk before his eyes. He just could not get the ball below ground. By the time he holed out at the 18th, there was no hole big enough to hide in.
It wasn't supposed to end this way. On a day when London bathed in the type of weather that Westwood has become accustomed to in Florida, a record final-day crowd of 26,412 sported shorts and summer dresses. Most of them were here to form a guard of honor for Westwood as he would surely turn the day into his coronation. And it all went to plan for five holes. He thrashed his opening drive down the middle of the first fairway with Wentworth's turreted façade providing a regal backdrop. The fans yelled their support: "Go on Westy! Go on Lee!" An Englishman and his castle. The scene was set. Westwood strode off, chest out like the bold knights of yore, to write another chapter in history.
It's not one he'll be re-reading. For five holes, he was majestic. He just missed a birdie chance at the first then rattled off three in a row to get to 11 under. He stood on the 5th tee with a two-shot lead and Wentworth was his kingdom. And then it all came crashing down around him. He limped home from his crusade with a one-over 73.
"I had a sniff at winning. So it's not all bad," he said. "But, you know, it's the sort of thing where I feel like if I was hitting it well, I should be winning a few tournaments, really." Unhappy with his technique, Westwood is again considering seeking advice from a swing coach but said this defeat is not going to linger. "It's not really in my mind," he said. "It's not like I've three-putted the last or something like that. I know the swing faults are there. It's just what happens, isn't it? If you're under pressure and you want to fall back on good technique and you haven't got it, you pay the price." The price today was a $1 million first prize. There is perhaps cold comfort in a check for $136,000 for a ninth-place tie.
Sergio Garcia ended the week at five under with an even-par final-round 72. This of course came on the heels of his mid-week verbal bogey, that infamous fried chicken joke served up for Tiger Woods. Garcia said Woods's manager has informed him that Tiger would rather speak to him face-to-face the next time they are in the United States rather than on the telephone. That will be at the U.S. Open next month. "There's nothing else we can do, so we'll wait until we get there and we'll talk," Garcia said. That will be a distraction he could do without at the second major of the year. "Can't change that," Garcia said. "We'll see what happens."
Garcia was once heralded as the new Seve. McIlroy was supposed to take Tiger's crown. This is now Manassero's time.