Inspired Francesco Molinari's Journey to Become the Open Champion
"It's just disbelief. Look at the names on the Claret Jug. It's the best golfers in history and to be on there, it's incredible.
"And for someone like me, coming from Italy, which is not a major golfing country, it's been an incredible journey."
The new Champion Golfer of the Year’s quest that triumphantly concluded on Sunday at Carnoustie can be traced back to the dramatic near-miss of his compatriot Constantino Rocca, who came agonisingly close to victory in the Open Championship at St. Andrews in 1995. Witnessing that experience on television left an impression on the 12-year-old Francesco Molinari, inspiring him to become his nation’s first major winner more than two decades later.
“Hopefully, there were a lot of young kids watching on TV today, like I was watching Constantino in '95 coming so close,” Molinari said. “Hopefully, they will get as inspired as I was at the time, watching him vie for the Claret Jug.”
Now those Italian youngsters – who shall welcome the Ryder Cup to their country in 2022 – have a star of their own to emulate.
This was a stunning achievement. Bogey-free over the final 36 holes on the most unrelenting of championship venues, the 35-year-old’s performance was an exhibition of composure and consistency on a manic and enthralling final day in Angus. The peripheral action around him was unpredictable, but the one apparent certainty was that Molinari wasn’t going to make a costly error. He looked the most assured player on a leaderboard of icons, all of whom suffered various degrees of disasters, but none befell the Turin native, who has impressively developed into a complete golfer.
Considered among the finest ball strikers in world golf, his previously maligned putting stroke has finally caught up to the quality of the long-game, delivering a formidable package that is testament to the efforts of himself and his various coaches, Denis Pugh, Phil Kenyon, and performance analyst Dave Aldred. There had been doubts and frustrations, but with that a determination to fulfill his potential. Locals in Angus would refer to Francesco as being a “grafter”, and this major breakthrough is the culmination of a tireless odyssey to enhance each aspect of his game, hard work that saw this humble and drily witty father of two arrive on Scotland’s east coast as the form horse.
Since the 27th of May – when he brilliantly fended off McIlroy to win the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth – the twice Ryder Cup player has finished runner-up at the Italian Open, secured his first title on the PGA Tour by dominating the Quicken Loans National, receiving the trophy from tournament host Tiger Woods. And just last week, he finished second at the John Deere Classic.
“I knew I was coming in playing some good golf, but my record round here was terrible. So that didn't make me too optimistic. To go bogey-free in the last two rounds is unthinkable.”
His record at Carnoustie – where he made his Open debut in 2007 – had been so poor that he declined to enter the annual Alfred Dunhill Links in recent years. His major resume – for a player of his capabilities – had been mediocre, with a solitary top ten finish in this championship being recorded on a similarly dusty Muirfield half a decade ago, when he had a front-row seat to witness the spectacular winning effort of Phil Mickelson in East Lothian.
Though his recent surge of results garnered attention and rated him as a popular each-way bet with discerning gamblers, there had always been much to admire about Molinari. Growing up on the fairways alongside his older brother Edoardo, the siblings have long and admirably waved the flag for Italian golf, combining to lead their nation to victory in the 2009 World Cup at Mission Hills and notably making history by playing in the same Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor a year later. They were a great team. Two golfers with a rare shared intelligence and likability.
Indeed, for a time, Edoardo was the better known, having won the 2005 U.S. Amateur. Francesco – though an emerging professional on the European Tour – caddied for his older brother at the Masters in 2006, grouped alongside Tiger Woods at Augusta National. That was Francesco’s personal introduction to major championships and the most transcendent golfer of modern times, who he was coincidentally paired with at Carnoustie, and was for the first half of the round overshadowed as a supporting player in the maelstrom of hype as the legendary American made a thrilling charge towards a potential 15th success in one of the game’s four most important events.
These pictures from the '06 Masters of Molinari caddying against Tiger (and Stevie!) are priceless pic.twitter.com/Hb39YHuuoH— Dylan Dethier (@dylan_dethier) July 22, 2018
But this wasn’t the first time that Molinari had competed against Woods in a pressured atmosphere, coming almost six years after halving a match at the conclusion of the miraculous 2012 Ryder Cup at Medinah. The Italian’s half-point completed outright victory for Jose Maria Olazabal’s seemingly beaten European side. Experiences like that are formative for any golfer. And it would have counted here.
“I’ve played with him before in Ryder Cups and in big occasions, so I knew what was coming, and I was ready for it,” Francesco reflected. “I was calm – you know, as calm as you can be playing in the last round of a major close to the lead, playing with Tiger. I focused on my process and on hitting good shots and on playing smart golf.”
That’s what is required to become an Open champion. Understanding the persistent dangers of links golf and how the seemingly innocuous can catch you out. Electing for the strategic decisions. It’s why the likes of the late Peter Thomson, Tom Watson, Jack Nicklaus, Nick Faldo and Tiger achieved such spectacular records in the game’s oldest and greatest championship. Having the intelligent plan is one thing but possessing the skill to execute it is another. Carnoustie demands that and no less.
Francesco Molinari had both. It was the complete performance.
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