MARANA, Ariz. – Matteo Manassero of Italy made an impressive debut as the youngest player ever at the Match Play Championship, beating Steve Stricker as the wildest day in golf lived up to its reputation Wednesday.
The 17-year-old Manassero took the lead on the 16th hole when Stricker missed a 6-foot putt, then closed out the American with a 20-foot birdie putt on the next hole for a 2-and-1 victory.
“It’s already a big achievement for me,” Manassero said. “I’m not expecting that much out of match play because I’m not used to playing match play against such big players. We’ll see what happens next round. But here, everybody is very good.”
The other two teenagers in the field had a tougher time. Ryo Ishikawa of Japan lost in 20 holes to Charl Schwartzel, while PGA champion Martin Kaymer already was 5 up through eight holes against Seung-yul Noh.
In afternoon matches still in progress, Tiger Woods recovered from a sloppy start and was 1 up on Thomas Bjorn through 12 holes, while top-seeded Lee Westwood was 1-up over Henrik Stenson through 10 holes.
Stricker was the highest seed (No. 8) to be eliminated. Jim Furyk, the No. 10 seed, lost to Ryan Palmer.
Phil Mickelson, who didn’t decide until two weeks ago to even play the tournament, had no trouble beating Brendan Jones of Australia.
The first three matches set the tone for the fickle format.
Ian Poulter became the first defending champion in nine years to be eliminated in the first round, despite having difficult remembering any bad shots he hit against Stewart Cink. All he could recall was Cink making one big putt after another – seven of them from the 6-foot range or longer – to win in 19 holes.
Cink never led in the match until a 6-iron into 4 feet on No. 1, the first extra hole.
“This is a big win for my confidence because I don’t know if there’s a tougher player in the field in match play than Ian Poulter,” Cink said. “It’s a big win for me.”
Poulter didn’t make a single putt over 5 feet.
“He didn’t miss a putt,” Poulter said. “That’s what you have to do. I did that last year. I didn’t this year and got punished for it.”
Poulter was stunned that as defending champion he was in the first match of the tournament – even though the No. 12 seed has led off at Match Play ever since it moved to Arizona in 2007 – and wondered if anyone would be on the course to watch. They were there by the thousands in extra holes, for he and Cink returned to No. 1 ahead of the Woods-Bjorn match.
In the second match, former PGA champion Y.E. Yang went 20 holes to beat big-hitting Spaniard Alvaro Quiros. And right behind them came the most entertaining match of all when Ernie Els outlasted Jeff Overton in 19 holes.
Overton won the first three holes and they halved the fourth with a bogey. Els then ran off five straight holes and appeared to be sailing to a rare, opening-round victory when he let Overton back in the match. Before long, they wound up back on the first tee.
Els put his approach into the bunker, while Overton hit his under a bush in the desert and made double bogey.
“At least I won,” Els said. “I have a 90 percent failure rate in extra holes. It was really ugly out there.”
Rory McIlroy, who must feel ancient at age 21, never trailed in beating Jonathan Byrd, 4 and 2. McIlroy can appreciate what it’s like to play this event as a teenager. He made his debut two years ago, advancing all the way to the quarterfinals.
“I definitely think there’s an opportunity for the younger guys to come and show what they’ve got on tour,” McIlroy said. “You feel like you’ve nothing to lose. Regardless of Tiger of Phil or Steve Stricker or Jim Furyk coming toward the end of their careers, I think the young guys are good enough to compete with them.
“I don’t think Tiger and Phil have gotten any … well, yeah, I mean I don’t think Phil hasn’t gotten any worse.”
It was a subtle dig at Woods, who now has gone 15 months without a winning and was in a scrape with Bjorn.