Italian Open Preview, Picks & Analysis
IAN POULTER is the star attraction at the Italian Open, a tournament that he won in 2000 and again two years later. The Englishman is all but guaranteed his place in Europe’s Ryder Cup team after a wonderful start to his 2018 campaign on the PGA Tour, which saw him win the Houston Open, and victory at Gardagolf Country Club will definitely seal the deal.
The tournament is the second Rolex Series event on the European Tour’s 2018 Race to Dubai, with Ryder Cup points earned multiplied by 1.5 on both the World Points List and the European Point List, and no Ryder Cup qualification points available from tournaments staged anywhere in the world played in the same week. In other words, should Justin Rose win The Memorial Tournament at Muirfield Village, he will not add to his Ryder Cup points total. It seems a trifle harsh, but is all part of the European Tour’s strategy to ensure the strongest possible fields for these tournaments - and they have certainly managed to achieve that.
Poulter may well start the week as favourite, but he faces a terrific field in Italy, led by defending champion Tyrrell Hatton. It was won in 2011 by Robert Rock, in 2012 by Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano, in 2013 by Julien Quesne, in 2014 by Hennie Otto, in 2015 by Rikard Karlberg and in 2016 by home favourite Francesco Molinari amid emotional scenes. It goes without saying that Molinari will once again attract a huge amount of support, but more of him later.
Poulter, a 12-time winner on the European Tour, has had two top-10 finishes on home soil this season, but is most famous for his Ryder Cup heroics. He has played in the event five times and finished on the winning side on four occasions, most famously when he inspired the incredible comeback at Medinah in 2012.
And the 42-year-old is looking forward to teeing it up in Italy once again. “The Italian Open will always be a special tournament for me,” he said. “It was my first win as a professional and the memories I have from that event will be stay with me forever. The Italian crowds are always fantastic and the course this year is in a spectacular spot right next to Lake Garda, so I’m looking forward to coming back to Italy.
“Having extra Ryder Cup points on offer two weeks in a row at the BMW PGA Championship and Italian Open certainly gives us players an extra incentive to do well. My game is feeling pretty good at the moment and I hope I can play well in front of the Italian fans.”
It is also a big week for the volcano that is Hatton. The Englishman won last year when he holed a 15-foot putt on the final green to win by a single shot. The 26-year-old has continued his impressive form this season, finishing third at the WGC-Mexico Championship and third at the Dubai Desert Classic, as well as turning in some great performances on the PGA Tour.
“I’m really looking forward to making the trip back to Italy,” he said. “I have so many good memories and my victory, coming straight after my success at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, is something I will never forget. Winning an event like the Italian Open, a tournament with such a long and rich history, and to do it on the way I did on the final hole was pretty special. It is going to be different defending a title at a new course, but I’m looking forward to the challenge.
“It was an unbelievable feeling when that putt dropped on the 18th. I knew I needed to birdie the last to win the tournament, and I gave myself a chance to do that with a 15-foot putt up the hill, and I was very happy to see that one drop. Finishing with five birdies and that putt, it is hard to describe the feeling really. I’m not one normally to fist pump or anything like that, but it just seemed like the right thing to do.”
Two-time Italian Open champion Francesco Molinari, fresh from a terrific performance in the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, will carry home hopes on his shoulders. He has become one of the most consistent golfers in the world over the past three or four seasons and is one of the best in the business with an iron in his hands.
Two years ago,Molinari became the first Italian to win his national Open twice since the event joined the European Tour in 1972 and he is targeting a third title. The 35-year-old finished ninth in the Race to Dubai last season and has an incredible record in his home event. Apart from his two wins, he has a further four top-10 finishes to his credit, and clearly relishes the pressure of playing in front of a partisan gallery.
"Two wins at my home event is already pretty special but obviously three would be even more special,” Molinari said. “Last year was a pretty honourable defence of the title and it just didn’t quite happen for me on Sunday. With a new course this year, I will have to get used to that but I am sure it’s going to be exciting again.
"It is a week that you circle in red in the calendar and for me it is a special week. I’ve had success in the past and I have enjoyed a lot of support from the home crowds the last few years, so I am looking forward to being back again.
"I think May is a very good date for Italy and hopefully we will have a nice week full of sunshine, and it will be a fun week for everyone. The prestige of the event is much bigger this year and everyone looks forward to every Rolex Series event. It’s big money, you can really make your move on the Race to Dubai and it will be even more exciting this year straight after Wentworth with two big weeks, one after the other.” There is a mouthwatering prize fund on offer of $7m in Italy.
Gardagolf is Matteo Manassero’s home course, where he learnt to play the game, and he will hope that gives him an advantage. “I always look forward to the Italian Open,” said the four-time European Tour winner. “Especially with it being at my home club, it’s just great and I’m going to enjoy the week a lot. I’m just going to enjoy every moment and try to play as well as I can.”
Ian Poulter. Not short on confidence - not that he ever was
Francesco Molinari. Adores his home event
Tommy Fleetwood. Another week, another good finish
Ian Poulter. Going for a third Italian Open
Francesco Molinari. Will have massive home support
Tommy Fleetwood. As consistent as any other player right now
Tyrrell Hatton. Will give title defence his best shot
Matthew Fitzpatrick. Still hugely underrated
Rafa Cabrera Bello. Super Spaniard
Alex Noren. One of the best in the world now
Alexander Levy. A class act
Thomas Pieters. Could do with getting his season on track
Martin Kaymer, Whisper it, but he has been showing some form
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