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February 24 2011

12:36 AM

Manassero, McIlroy pleased by opener

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Matteo Manassero and Rory McIlroy advanced to the round of 32.

MARANA, Ariz. -- Rory McIlroy couldn't help but chuckle.

When he got to the range on Wednesday morning, he was hitting balls with 17-year-old Matteo Manassero, 19-year-old Ryo Ishikawa and a man old enough to be their father, Steve Stricker.

"Stricker was pushing the average age up by a bit there, so it was funny," the 21-year-old McIlroy said with a smile.

Only two of the four -- McIlroy and Manassero -- will be back there on Thursday morning preparing for the second round of the World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play Championship, though. McIlroy beat Jonathan Byrd 4 and 2 while the Italian teen disposed of Stricker 2 and 1.

Not a birthday to remember for Stricker, who turned 44 on Wednesday.

"I was looking forward to this match and I was trying to do my best," Manassero said. "I actually have played well.  I played really well.  I achieved a victory against one of the best players in the world and ... past champion of this event.  So it's just a big highlight for me."

Manassero, who became the youngest winner ever on the European Tour last year, said he wasn't expecting a lot this week. He played lost of match play as an amateur but not "against such big players. So this is already very good for me, and we'll see what happens next round."

Next up for Manassero is Charl Schwartzel, who beat Ishikawa in 20 holes. The other teenager in the field, Seung-yul Noh, the 19-year-old Korean, drew world No. 2 Martin Kaymer and lost 7 and 6.

It was hard to tell if McIlroy was happier for himself or Manassero, whom he had played a practice round with on Monday. McIlroy can relate to what the young Italian is experiencing this week -- he made his debut at Dove Mountain as a 19-year-old on the heels of his first European Tour victory.

"It's awesome; it's fantastic," said McIlroy, who faces Ben Crane in the second round. "I'm happy for him. ... He's so mature for 17. ,,, It's all these little things -- he's still learning and they're put into the memory bank and it can only serve him well in the future and that's why all the experience that I've had, good and bad, they should serve you well in the future.  And to get all these experiences so young. 

"By the time Matteo and myself, 24, 25, you know, we'll have tons of experience that we can use and hopefully use it to our advantage."

McIlroy, who is ranked No. 7 in the world, feels he's a "much more rounded" golfer than he was when he tied for fifth at Dove Mountain three years ago. He also has seen the landscape of the game altered thanks to the volatility of the world rankings after Lee Westwood overtook Tiger Woods as world No. 1.  

"I definitely think there's an opportunity for the younger guys to come and show what they've got on Tour," McIlroy said. "  ... You come on, and as I said before, you feel like you've nothing to lose. You just go out there and you're playing your game.

"I mean, regardless of Tiger or Phil or Steve Stricker or Jim Furyk are coming towards the end of their careers, I think the young guys are not good enough to compete with them. ... I mean, I don't think Tiger and Phil have got any, well, yeah, I mean I don't think  Phil hasn't got any worries. I mean, Tiger isn't as dominant as he used to be, and Phil, I mean Phil won The Masters last year. 

"They're great players and they're going to continue to be great players until their mid 40s. … I think it's a good opportunity for guys, the younger generation to come through and show what they have." -- Helen Ross

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