PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Europeans, yes. But when it comes to golf, Alvaro Quiros and Matteo Manassero play games that are light years apart.
“Totally different games, yes,” Manassero said. “But still, it’s fun.”
Separated on so many occasions by large chunks of golf course real estate, Quiros and Manassero are so often brought together by a boyish charm. It comes natural for Manassero, since the Italian sensation is just 18. But with Quiros, a 28-year-old Spaniard, credit his Latin flair and high-energy personality that pretty much always keeps things light.
“He’s a good friend,” Manassero said of Quiros. “We’ve played a lot of golf together.”
To that total, add each of the last two days since the Italian and the Spaniard have been together for trips around a Stadium Course that cannot be overpowered, but must be finessed. Such a commitment played into Manassero’s game plan, for he’s a young man with a maturity when it comes to golf course management. Quiros? He remains an thrill ride and if you follow along, you will experience twists, turns, and sudden stops.
The good news is, each man will be around for the weekend, because Quiros, despite four bogeys in a row coming home on the front nine, is at 4 under 138, while Manassero, rock solid and precision-like, is at 2 under.
Considering that it’s only Quiros’ second appearance and Manassero’s first at The Players Championship, it would have to rate as a pleasant surprise that each has made it into the weekend. Truthfully, though, they left the golf course with different dispositions because of the way things went.
Manassero kept bouncing between 1 under and level par, which was on the cut line, until he birdied two of his last three holes, the par-4 seventh and par-5 ninth, to shoot 70 and get halfway home at 2-under 142.
“I wasn’t playing well at the beginning,” said the two-time European Tour winner. “I had a lot of opportunities.”
It was a little sweet and sour with the putter for Manassero. He missed 6-foot putts for birdie at the par-3 third, for par at the par-4 fourth, and for birdie at the par-4 sixth – yet he sank a 27-footer at the par-4 seventh and 17-footer at the ninth for birdies.
Such fickleness prompted Manassero to show a smile that is quickly becoming one of the game’s best.
“That’s golf,” he said. “You never know what’s going to happen.”
You had to look no further than Manassero’s two playing competitors to see that truism played out. On the one hand, Quiros did a freefall down the leaderboard, while Rickie Fowler put on a spirited charge.
Having pitched in for eagle from the top of a mound some 50 feet left of the hole at the par-5 16th, he was 8 under and one off the lead. He traded a bogey at 18 for a birdie at the first hole and was just two off the lead, then came a four-hole stretch in which he struggled to keep the ball in play.
There was a three-putt from 45 feet at the fourth. At the fifth he drove through the fairway into a bunker, had to stand above the ball with his feet outside the sand and his second shot was a fat hook that hit water, skipped out and came to rest on the upslope of a bunker face. At six he pushed a tee shot into the woods and could only punch out. At seven he again went right off the tee and hit a second shot 35 yards beyond the green.
Bogey, bogey, bogey, bogey – and forget the lead, Quiros needed to right the ship just to make the cut.
There was a different story being served up by Fowler, who at 22 is four years older than Manassero, but clearly connected with him.
“It’s the first time I’ve played with him,” Fowler said. “Obviously, I’m very impressed with his game. He might not hit it very far, but he hits it far enough.”
Down and out with flu-like symptoms Monday and Tuesday, Fowler got in nine holes of practice Wednesday, but dragged through a round of 77 Thursday. He managed a birdie on his second hole, the par 5 11th, but bogeys at 15 and 16 pushed him to 6 over.
Figuring the cut would be at level par, Fowler knew he needed something short of a miracle – and he nearly pulled it off. Birdies at the first and second got him a bit interested, but when he missed the green and bogeyed the par-3 third Fowler was back to 5 over.
Then came a stretch that was scintillating as Quiros’ was ugly. At four, Fowler slammed a wedge to 6 feet. At five, a 316-yard drive and approach to 16 feet. From a fairway bunker he hit a 128-yard approach to 13 feet at six. Then, at seven there was a driver, wedge to 18 feet.
Birdie, birdie, birdie, birdie. At 1 over, he had a chance, only “you don’t go to eight (a 215-yard par 3) thinking birdie and nine isn’t a gimme par 5.”
Fowler managed to get it up and down shy of eight green, but he left his lay-up too tight to the left side of the ninth fairway and “I had to try and hook a wedge around a (big branch),” he said, smiling. “I don’t have that shot.”
Fowler didn’t make a 40-footer, so at 1 over he knew he’d be settling into an afternoon of watching and hoping, as clear as it seemed that level par would be the cut.
For his European playing competitors, it was a different story. Manassero and Quiros knew they had weekend plans at the Stadium Course for their contrasting games.