Francesco Molinari remembers a sense of calm washing over him as he lined up a 5-foot putt to win the 2016 Italian Open.
“It was a strange feeling,” he said. “It never really went through my mind that I could miss that putt.”
Molinari stepped up and stroked the ball into the hole for a closing round of 65, 22 under for the tournament, to beat the Masters champion Danny Willett by one shot. He lifted his arms in celebration and became the first Italian to win his national Open twice since the event became part of the European Tour in 1972.
Victory in front of an adoring crowd was the perfect boost for a golfing nation that is already prepping to host the 2022 Ryder Cup in Rome. Molinari, 34, and his older brother, Edoardo, have been Italy’s unofficial golf ambassadors for more than a decade in a country where golf is still viewed as an elitist diversion.
“It’s pretty hard to change the culture of a nation,” Francesco said, “but golf’s getting more popular.”
There are more than 90,000 registered golfers in Italy according to the Italian Golf Federation. The Molinari brothers were exposed to the game at a young age, trailing after their grandparents and parents — their father is a dentist, and their mother is a homemaker — on weekend trips to the course in the Alp-fringed city of Turin, host of the 2006 Winter Olympics. (Francesco even carried the Olympic torch for a stretch.)
The brothers, born 21 months apart, have been feeding off each other’s games ever since they dominated their local club championships at the Circolo Golf Torino as teenagers.
Edoardo won the 2005 U.S. Amateur Championship, the first European to do so since 1911. Francesco picked up his maiden professional victory when he won the Italian Open in 2006, becoming the first native-born champion since 1980.
“Whenever one succeeds, the other is quick to top him,” said Denis Pugh, who began coaching the brothers in 2002 and has instructed Francesco ever since.
“It’s a rivalry in a good sense, in a good way,” Edoardo said.
In 2009, the Molinaris teamed up to win the World Cup for Italy — a competition for two-man national teams staged in China — and were partners on Europe’s winning Ryder Cup team a year later. In doing so, they became the first brothers in 47 years to play on the same Ryder Cup team. Since then, their fortunes have diverged.
Francesco was the only Molinari on Europe’s victorious Ryder Cup team in 2012, and he has climbed to No. 18 in the Official World Golf Ranking, and No. 7 in the European Tour Race to Dubai heading into the fifth Rolex Series event at the Golf Club Milano starting on Thursday.
Edoardo, on the other hand, had two surgeries on his left hand, and he has slipped to No. 308 in the world. But he has regained his health and this season showed signs of rediscovering his game when he won the European Tour’s Trophee Hassan II in Morocco in April.
Francesco has not won a tournament since the Italian Open last year, but he finished second at the European Tour’s PGA Championship and threatened to win his first major at the P.G.A. Championship at Quail Hollow Golf Club in Charlotte, N.C., finishing in a three-way tie for second, two strokes behind Justin Thomas.
“On the 16th tee, I said to myself, ‘You need to make one birdie on the last three holes to have a chance,’ ” Molinari said of the closing stretch, nicknamed The Green Mile. “Those holes are very hard and when I made bogey at 16, it was kind of over for me.”
Molinari, who is renowned for his accuracy, drove into the rough at 16. Pugh calls his pupil the best mid-iron player in the world, capable of hitting his 5-iron inside the wedge of the longest hitters. Spain’s Gonzalo Fernandez-Castaño, who has played against Molinari since they were teenagers, marvels at how Molinari rarely misses a fairway or a green.
“If you want to calibrate your TrackMan,” Castaño said of the electronic device that gives real-time measurements of golf shots, “take it to Francesco. He’s a machine.”
Molinari is also a disciplined student of the game, and he recently added width to his swing and a performance coach to help improve his flexibility. It has paid off this season as Molinari added more than 5 yards in driving distance (to 292.4) while remaining one of the straightest drivers (No. 6 in driving accuracy).
He also improved from 70th to 5th in approach shots from 100 to 125 yards this year, and sank more putts, particularly from 7 to 14 feet. In his third year as a PGA Tour member, Molinari improved nearly a full stroke in strokes gained: total, — which measures a player’s performance against the field by comparing a player’s score to the field average — ranking seventh on Tour.
All that is missing is that elusive first win on the circuit. Silvia Cavalleri became the first Italian native to win on the LPGA Tour in 2007, but no Italian-born golfer has ever won a PGA Tour event.
“That’s pretty much the reason why I decided to start playing more in the U.S.,” Molinari said. “I’ve been getting closer.”
Molinari has four titles on the European Tour, including the 2010 WGC HSBC Champions before it was recognized as a PGA Tour victory. What has held him back from taking the top prize more often in the trophy hunt?
“The long game can take you only so far,” Molinari said. “You can be in contention and have good finishes more often than other people, but when it comes to crunchtime you have to make the putts at the right time.”
“I tell him he hasn’t won as much as he should’ve because he’s trying too hard to win,” Pugh said. “Francesco has to let it happen rather than trying to make it happen.”
As long as he keeps making steady progress, Molinari is confident he will win.
Pugh predicts that once Molinari wins his first tournament on the PGA Tour, it will not be his last. “He’s capable of a major, maybe two,” Pugh said.
For all of Molinari’s success, he remains quiet and levelheaded, with sneaky-good humor. He plays with a cold, calculating style that sometimes gives the impression that he would rather be in his father’s dental chair than drilling golf shots.
“I just wish he’d smile more when he played,” Pugh said. “He’s got a good set of teeth. He should show them off a bit more.”
Published at Sun, 08 Oct 2017 10:00:28 +0000