MARANA, Ariz. – In a Match Play Championship with a youthful complexion, Rickie Fowler was dressed in matching pink shoes and shirt when he walked onto the driving range and past his opponent, Phil Mickelson, who looked him up and down and smiled.
“Sophia has some shoes like that,” Mickelson said, referring to his 9-year-old daughter. “She wears them to her dance class.”
Mickelson has become somewhat of a mentor to Fowler, so the kid knew what was coming.
Once they got onto the course, Fowler was hotter than his choice of color at Dove Mountain.
Fowler was 8-under par when their match ended on the 13th hole, a 6-and-5 win that sent Mickelson to his worst loss ever in this fickle tournament.
“I love guys like Phil. In a way, he’s taken me under his wing a bit,” Fowler said. “I love watching him play. I love playing with him. And obviously, it was huge for me going out there and getting the job done today.”
Fowler was 5 under over the last four holes, which included a chip-in for birdie from behind the 10th green and a pair of eagles, the last one with a 4-iron from 232 yards that landed just beyond a ridge and rolled so close that Mickelson conceded the putt.
“He doesn’t really have a weakness,” Mickelson said. “He really is a complete player, and he put it together today.”
Fowler had plenty of company.
Equally impressive was Italy’s teen sensation, 17-year-old Matteo Manassero, who hit a 6-iron to 4 feet on the 17th hole and closed out Charl Schwartzel of South Africa to advance. Jason Day, a 23-year-old Australian, played like a veteran of match play the way he toyed with Paul Casey in a 4-and-2 victory.
Of the final 16 players left at the Accenture Match Play Championship, eight are under 30.
That includes Nick Watney, who steadied his emotions over the last three holes to knock out top-ranked Lee Westwood – the third straight year the No. 1 seed did not make it out of the second round. The highest seed remaining after two wild days was PGA champion Martin Kaymer, the 25-year-old “Germanator” who had to go 20 holes to beat Justin Rose.
It hasn’t been a bad week for the Americans at this World Golf Championship. They have eight players in the round of 16, the most in five years. The surprise is the list of players.
Tiger Woods, Steve Stricker and Jim Furyk were gone after the first round. Mickelson joined them on Thursday.
Leading the way is a new cast of emerging stars, from Fowler and Watney, to Hunter Mahan, who won three of the last five holes to rally against Robert Karlsson.
But this youth movement isn’t about the Americans.
Manassero keeps setting age records wherever he goes – the youngest to win the British Amateur, the youngest to be low amateur at the British Open and the Masters, the youngest to win on the European Tour.
“It’s a big sense of achievement for me,” Manassero said.
He was in control for much of his match against Schwartzel until nearly giving it away. His tee shot on the 16th bounced off the corporate tents and into a cactus, and the Italian felt as though he might have moved the ball while trying to remove a loose branch. So he conceded the hole to Schwartzel, and put it behind him quickly.
His 6-iron on the 17th set up birdie, and Manassero closed it out with a par on the 18th.
One youngster not invited to the party was 21-year-old Rory McIlroy, the No. 7 seed. He ran into Ben Crane, who played perhaps his quickest round ever – the match ended on the 11th hole, an 8-and-7 victory.
Crane has the reputation for slow play, although that wasn’t an issue.
“We played quick out there because he was making birdies,” McIlroy said.
U.S. Open champion Graeme McDowell had no trouble with Ross Fisher in a 4-and-2 victory, which assured he will move ahead of Woods in the next world ranking.
“I’m perhaps a better golfer than him in the last 12 months, but he’s definitely the greatest player that’s ever lived, I think,” McDowell said. “Of course, if someone told me at some point in my career I would be No. 3 in the world, I’d be proud of that fact.”
Kaymer, meanwhile, kept alive his chances of going to No. 1 when he held on to beat Rose and Westwood was beaten. The German will have to reach the championship match to go to No. 1.
Watney and Westwood halved the last three holes, although it wasn’t that simple.
The turning point came on the par-3 16th, when Watney hit into a bunker, left it in the bunker and blasted out to 5 feet. Westwood had two putts from 20 feet to square the match, but knocked his first putt 3½ feet by the hole. Watney made his putt for bogey, and Westwood’s par putt barely touched the hole.
Then, Watney had a 5-foot birdie putt to win the match on the 17th and missed, giving life to Westwood. The Englishman had a 15-foot birdie putt to go into overtime, but it wasn’t close.
Westwood took solace in going 18 holes “considering how badly I putted.”
He has yet to record a top-10 finish in four starts this year.
With so much emphasis on youth, the oldest player in the field is still alive. That would be Miguel Angel Jimenez, the 47-year-old Spaniard with his love of cigars and red wine. Next up is Crane, who has never made it past the third round in this tournament.
“I don’t think anyone is going, ‘Wow, Ben Crane is really coming through this bracket. Look out! Gosh, sorry you’ve got to play Ben Crane. Boy, tough draw there,’” Crane said. “Rory didn’t have his best day and things were going in my favor.”
Things are going well for J.B. Holmes, too. He wasn’t in the field until Tim Clark withdrew, and he beat Ernie Els on the 18th hole.