MARANA, Ariz. – His caddie duties have taken him to early every continent and countries too many to count. There are few major winners he hasn’t worked for and through the decades of good play and bad, of rain storms and scorching heat, Dave McNeely has kept his brilliant Irish sense of humor.
Except, of course, when someone approaches, sees him standing by the bag that he carries for Matteo Manassero and they suggest that McNeely is old enough to be the kid’s father.
Oh, that can get his Irish up.
“I tell them, ‘I’m old enough to be his grand-dad,’ “ McNeely said.
Now he was really laughing, standing not 30 feet from where Manassero rolled putt after putt on the practice green at The Golf Club at Dove Mountain. If this prep work for the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship seemed enjoyable for the man from Belfast, it should come as no surprise, because few approach their craft with an enthusiasm that matches McNeely’s. Only these days he’s perhaps more at ease and feeling greater joy, thanks to the presence of Manassero.
“The way he behaves, he’s so mannerly, so very, very courteous,” McNeely said.
Then he flashed a sly grin, sensing that you might take that to mean the Italian is a gentle sort ill-prepared for the dogged competition at this PGA Tour level. Nothing, said McNeely could be further from the truth.
“He’s a fierce competitor, let me tell you,” McNeely said. “Fierce!”
You steal a glance Manassero’s way and you want to say, “Are you kidding me? That kid, fierce?” He’s got a baby face that appears better suited for the school yard than the golf course, he removes his hat on command, thanks everyone for everything, and nods hellos to nearly everyone in sight.
And beyond all that, what is he . . . 20?
“In April, I will be,” Manassero said, which is right about when it hits you. It might be his third Accenture Match Play Championship, his sixth World Golf Championship, and his 82nd professional tournament on the European and American PGA Tours . . . but good gracious the kid is just 19.
“Amazing,” said grand-dad . . . er, McNeely.
The veteran caddie does not understate the case, for Manassero is a remarkable story. If he wasn’t opening eyes for winning the British Boys Amateur at the age of 16, it was for playing alongside Tom Watson and Sergio Garcia and going on to finish T-13 at the 2009 Open Championship. In October of 2010, less than a year into his pro career, Manasssero at 17 became the youngest winner of a European tournament, a stunning triumph that helped qualify him for the 2011 Accenture.
All he did two Februarys ago was thrash Steve Stricker and Charl Schwartzel before losing to Luke Donald. The fact that he returned in 2012 to beat Webb Simpson in the opening round was reason enough to ask what he has in store for an encore this week? A win over defending champ Hunter Mahan, perhaps?
“It is extra motivation to have to play the defending champion,” Manassero said. “And he played well last week (at the Northern Trust Open), so he’s in good form.”
You might say the same about Manassero, who seemingly hasn’t had a bad day since turning professional more than three years ago. Four years into his pro career and he’s still 19!
Like McNeely said, amazing.
Just don’t expect Manassero to exude any sort of cockiness, for that’s not his style. As much as he’s exceedingly polite, the kid from Negrar, Italy, is unfailingly humble, quite content to blend into the Dove Mountain landscape and let the spotlight shine on others. True, he’s won one tournament in each of his three seasons, consistently ranked among the world’s top 75 players, and already played in seven majors and made the cut at least once in each, but there is nothing special about his situation, in his eyes.
“This is a big challenge,” Manassero said. “(Wednesday) will be pretty special with the weather (cold, windy, rain and perhaps even sleet), so I’m trying hard to prepare mentally.
Whether he wins or loses against Mahan or irregardless of what the week holds for Manassero, his fate will not be tied to being unprepared mentally. That much is sure, according to McNeely. Want proof as to the sort of determination that burns deep within the Italian? Consider last fall’s Barclay’s Singapore Open, Manassero having battled Louis Oosthuizen to a tie.
The playoff hole was the 18th, a par-5 with water down the left side and clearly it favored Oosthuizen, who is appreciably long off the tee. Manassero? Oh, what a gifted wedge player, but he’s never been accused of overpowering a golf course.
“Three times they played the hole and for Matteo to compete with Louis’ length, he had to hug the water down the left (to shorten the hole). It was risky, but he did it all three times,” McNeely said.
They each birdied the first time, then they made pars. On the third time around, Oosthuizen made birdie – and lost to Manassero’s eagle.
“I told you, he’s a fierce competitor,” McNeely said.
Makes you sort of wonder what he’ll be like when he grows up.