Sense of fun keeps things interesting for O'Manassero
One of Europe's hottest prospects has an Irishman as his witty sidekick, writes Dermot Gilleece
On the chipping green beside the Oak Hill clubhouse, Matteo Manassero moved the few yards from thick rough to do some bunker practice. To gasps from an attentive audience, the player's caddie took a wedge in his hand and proceeded to hit a deliberate shank. Both men chuckled at the delicious deception.
They're an unlikely partnership, 60-year-old Dave McNeilly from Greenisland, Co Antrim and his 20-year-old master from Verona. As it happened, Manassero approached Oak Hill with the grand objective of becoming the first player in history to complete the double of British and American PGA titles. Clearly not a matter for levity.
Yet they seem to have wonderful fun together. Like last November in Hong Kong where they found themselves in the corporate tent close to the Northern Ireland deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness. In McNeilly's view, everything had fallen nicely into place. McGuinness was there on a trade delegation and the most prominent player from these parts, Rory McIlroy, had missed the cut.
"In terms of meeting him, we had become the big cheese," he said. "And I wanted Matteo to behave like he was from the North. I urged him to go for it, like 'Good on ye, Martin. How's about ye'. But he wouldn't." In mock censure, the caddie added with a hang-dog expression: "He backed down."
Where the Argentinian, Eduardo Romero, was taught phrases like "Conas a tá tú?" and "Maith go leor" by European Tour colleagues Pádraig Harrington and Paul McGinley, McNeilly has gone for a more colloquial approach. Familiar Italian words like "ciao" and "arrivederci" have been replaced by phrases like "Where's the crack?"
Meanwhile, Manassero's respect for his caddie can be gauged from his decision to play the Irish Open at Royal Portrush last year, on McNeilly's advice. "He's very old and very wise," said the reigning BMW/PGA champion with a warm smile. "He's a great guy and I value his experience. But I would never have had an experienced guy I couldn't have some fun with. And Dave is a very funny guy." Then, almost as an afterthought, he added mischievously: "For his age."
Inspired by Seve Ballesteros, Manassero took his first, tentative swings as a youngster of remarkable promise while McNeilly was spending five years as Harrington's caddie, having previously worked with such notables as Nick Price and Mark McNulty. And since they joined forces two years ago, Manassero became the first teenager to win three tournaments on the European Tour, through victory in last November's Singapore Open. He then gained his biggest success at Wentworth in May, after a play-off against Simon Khan.
"We were only a short time together when he told me I would have to speak Irish," said the polished Italian. Real Irish, like Gaelic? Manassero laughed. "No, no," he replied. "Only the Irish way. You might see it like picking up bad habits."
Rejecting the notion of a father-son relationship, he went on to explain the importance of having such a partner on his bag. "To me, it is very important and very sincere," he said. "We spend such a lot of time together, that if we can find some way to have a laugh, it takes a lot of the nerves and tensions out of the stress that we get.
"We're not only talking about the five hours on the course. There's a lot more. When you're at a tournament, it's almost the entire day, pretty much. It's obviously a working relationship, trying to match the things that we want from each other. So we talk quite a lot about what needs to be done. In fact, we have many long dialogues. And if that's with somebody you don't really like and you can't have fun with, it would become boring after a month. You wouldn't be able to work with him any more."
The quality of his performances indicates a quiet determination about Manassero, pointing towards success at the highest level. And he doesn't neglect his homework, as indicated by a surprising knowledge of Donald Ross, the legendary designer of Oak Hill. "At first, you just play what you see," he said. "But as you progress on this golf course, you begin to feel and understand what the architect was trying to do and where he has put his prints. Like an examination you have to try to understand."
With that, it was time for more fun with McNeilly back by his side. The matter of our precise location in Rochester was raised. "Upstate, New York," said the caddie to his master. "Upstairs what?" enquired Manassero. Whereupon the two of them laughed heartily.