Christmas came early for the Estero boys golf team this year when Jonah Manning transferred from South Fort Myers to the Wildcats for his junior year a week before the season began in August.
The move thrust an already-talented Estero team set to compete for county and district titles into contention for the school’s first state championship.
Pairing Manning, one of the county’s elite players, with Luke Farmer, the defending Lee County Athletic Conference champion, continues to pay dividends this season as the Wildcats enter the LCAC tournament Tuesday at Coral Oaks Golf Course in Cape Coral as favorites alongside Ida Baker and Riverdale.
The decision to leave South was a difficult one for Manning, but competing on a team that could challenge for championships was essential.
“I wanted to be able to compete as a team. At South, I wasn’t really able to do that well because we didn’t have a lot of good players really,” Manning said. “When it came down to it, it was going to be between Fort Myers and Estero. Estero had some of my friends and I thought we could get to state.”
Estero came up eight strokes short of qualifying for the Class 2A championships last season. The addition of Manning gave the Wildcats a more reliable No. 2 behind Farmer, a New-Press Golfer of the Year finalist who finished 14th as an individual at states last year.
First-year coach Bruce Buchla walked into a situation where expectations are sky high.
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“My main concern was the jell and chemistry with the players, but it was confirmed there were no problems as soon as they met,” Buchla said.
Farmer and Manning were well-acquainted having played against each other a number of times. Perhaps the most memorable head-to-head showdown came at the Golf Club at Magnolia Landing at last year’s LCAC where Manning stalked Farmer, the leader, the whole round, finishing two strokes behind him with an even-par 72.
The competition has increased now that they are teammates.
“When we’re at our best I think we’re pretty close,” Manning said. “It’s fun to go back and forth this season and to be able to compete. The competition between us makes us better. I kind of hate losing to him.”
The feeling is mutual for Farmer.
“I always want to beat him and he always wants to beat me,” Farmer said. “It’s a good little rivalry.”
The duo’s games are very similar with Manning hitting it a little farther off the tee and Farmer finishing a little better around the greens.
“Their swings are on point. They can really push that ball up the fairway,” Buchla said of the two. “They have this competitiveness about them that they’re not going to get beat.”
They’ve both shined at different moments thus far this season. Farmer fired a 4-under 68 to take medalist honors at the Bishop Verot Invitational at Stoneybrook Golf Club Sept. 20. The following weekend Manning went on a run of birdies at the Sebring Invitational that Buchla said “you had to see it to believe it.”
2015 News-Press All-Area boys golf
Moving forward they’ll have to rely on each other to achieve their team goals while challenging each other individually.
At Coral Oaks, a short course that plays right into their abilities off the tee, they’ll face stiff competition from Baker, which sports its own talented tandem of Alec DiLallo and Blake Donnelly. In a match earlier this season Farmer edged DiLallo by a stroke for medalist honors but Baker won the match 164-168.
Meanwhile, Riverdale features a strong trio in Bobby Hurst, Mark Iwinski and Tainter Bundy.
There will be a lot birdie opportunities Farmer said he and Manning and teammates Landon Fiore and Aaron Puckett must take advantage of.
“If you make a mistake, there are plenty of chances to make up for it,” Farmer said.
As the stages get bigger and bigger, Farmer knows he has a teammate who will push him to his limits and get the absolute best out of him.