MARANA, Ariz. – And with that, let us exclaim, “give me rewrite.”
That storyline we were prepared for? The one about two of the game’s youngest and brightest stars setting up a third-round game to pump a bit more delight into the Accenture Match Play Championship? Well, it’s on to Plan B.
Darn, because there is just so much flavor around a head-to-head match between Ryo Ishikawa, 20, and Matteo Manassero, 18, yet that’s how the Accenture bracket crumbles, as they say.
“Yeah, it’s great to see the young guys,” Manassero said, “but it’s tough. Sometimes you just get an opponent who plays better than you.”
Already a two-time winner on the PGA European Tour, Manassero has an infectious smile and a game that packs a ton of flair, only he spoke those words on the long way down the 18th hole at the Ritz-Carlton Dove Mountain course. He was in position to speak because on this day, an opponent had played better than he had. And if Ishikawa in the very next match wanted to echo Manassero’s thoughts, he could have, because an opponent had played better than he had, too.
So to prove for about the 1,475th time that one never knows with this match-play business, instead of Ishikawa-Manassero, on Friday morning we’ll have those two chaps who are ushering Scotland back into prominence: Paul Lawrie and Martin Laird.
Having all but disappeared from the world golf stage in the years following his 1999 Open Championship triumph, Lawrie jumped on Ishikawa early and never let go. Closing out his 1 up win with a cool two-putt from 31 feet at the 18th hole, Lawrie has played 36 holes and trailed for just one hole.
To say his career has been rejuvenated would be a massive understatement, because Lawrie has been so out of mind, he hasn’t qualified for this top-64-in-the-world fun since 2003.
Though at 29, Laird is 14 years younger than Lawrie, he hasn’t exactly been in the world stage, either. But seemingly every time he tees it up, Laird is making you take note, his PGA Tour win total at two, his world ranking up to 40, and his stock in the Ryder Cup picture getting better by the day.
What he did against Manassero did nothing to dent any of that, either, particularly his feat at the 203-yard, par 3 16th. Nursing a 1-up lead, Laird chased a hole location cut back left and when he stuck his shot to 5 feet and made birdie, he was 2 up with two to play.
“A hell of a game,” said Laird, who birdied three of the first four holes, yet had only a 1-up lead. “It’s about a good as I played in a while there. I needed all of it today to beat Matteo.”
Indeed, he did, which is both a testament to Laird’s maturity and Manassero’s uncanny ability to play the deft shots with skill. Having whipped one of America’s best players, Webb Simpson, by a 3-and-2 count Wednesday, Manassero was in position to make it to the third round in this tournament for a second straight year.
Surely, the teenager had his chances, particularly on the par 5s where he went eagle-birdie-birdie-birdie, but when a last bid to make a 55-foot birdie putt at the par 4 17th failed to keep the match alive, Manassero shrugged his shoulders and opted to walk the entire length of 18 rather than take a ride to the clubhouse.
“I didn’t play fantastically,” he said. “But I had a great game. I putted really well, but I couldn’t make (enough). You try to battle to the end; that’s what I did. Unfortunately, I couldn’t do it.”
Ishikawa and Manassero entered the second round knowing a victory could help in their goal of moving up in the world rankings to earn a Masters berth. Ishikawa came to Dove Mountain ranked 56th, Manassero 61st, and now time is running out for this year’s first major. Each had to get into the top 50 by the March 18 cutoff, and their playing opportunities are slim.
Ishikawa will play only at the Transitions Championship on March 8-11, while Manassero will head back to the European Tour for next week’s Open de Andalucia and the Trophee Hassan the following week.
“We’ll see if I can qualify for the Masters,” said Manassero, who was T-36 in his only Augusta appearance, in 2010.
A demanding task, it was suggested. But Manassero, who is saturated with duende, smiled.
“All you need to do is play well.”
Don’t let the loss to Laird fool you; he’s got that part down pat.