Arnold Palmer Invitational Preview, Picks & Analysis
IT’S BEEN a strange 12 months or so for Francesco Molinari. He won the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill - a title he defends this week - and then looked like adding The Masters the following month. But he suffered a back-nine collapse and lost out to Tiger Woods, and the popular Italian has struggled to find his best form ever since.
Molinari had ridden the crest of a wave in 2018, winning the BMW PGA Championship, his first PGA Tour title and crowning it all by winning The Open at Carnoustie, holding off the challenge of Tiger Woods in the process. And it all continued when he fired a stunning final round of 64 to secure the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Molinari started the final round five shots behind the leader, but his bogey-free Sunday shot him to 12 under and a two-shot win. It was punctuated by a stunning 43-foot birdie putt on the final hole. It was his third PGA Tour success and it took him to seventh in the world rankings. He is now in 26th position. That is quite a fall.
“I tried to be aggressive from the start and it was nice to see quite a lot of putts dropping…especially for my standards,” Molinari said. “I think it's been the best putting round ever in my career. And it's nice to do it, obviously in those circumstances, at Arnie's place. And I don't know, there must be something going on with that line (on 18), because it seems that a lot of guys winning the tournament make that putt.”
Twelve months earlier Rory McIlroy shot a 64 on Sunday to win. He had a chance to go back-to-back having started just one off the lead but faded to a tied-sixth finish - something he has continued to make something of a habit of in 2020.
Overnight leader Matt Fitzpatrick (71) finished two back.
Molinari said it was certainly fitting for the event to be won in a way that Arnold Palmer himself would have been proud of. Palmer was a swashbuckling golfer who attacked everything.
“It's always a pleasure for us to come back here to his place, it was obviously even better when Mr Palmer was around, but even now you can feel his presence and, yeah, hopefully he saw Rory in 2018 and he saw me in 2019 and he's proud of what we did out there,” Molinari said. “Coming from Italy, we weren't exposed to that much golf, but obviously Arnie was such a global icon and this tournament was one that we watched, my brother Edoardo and myself, at home many times.
Molinari joined Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas and Gary Woodland with the most final rounds (four) of 64 or better on the PGA Tour since the start of the 2016-17 season.
“I know that I can shoot low scores pretty much on every golf course…I'm not scared to say that, or I'm not shy of confidence in that way,” Molinari added. “It's never easy, but I think what makes the difference is my mental approach is a lot better than what it was three, four years ago and I practice at home to do this sort of stuff in tournaments.”
His stunning form continued at Augusta. He led by two shots after 54 holes and was still in front when he came to the par-three 12th, a hole that has finished the hopes of so many would-be winners over the years. And Molinari was no exception. His tee-shot at the hole finished in Rae’s Creek and he ran up a double-bogey that ended his chances and he found more water at the 15th. He finished two behind Woods after a final round of 74. And he has failed to recover in the 11 months that have since passed. He will be hoping that a return to Bay Hill brings back some good memories.
Unfortunately, there will be no Tiger Woods in the field. This is a tournament he has dominated but he is still struggling with a stiff back and wants to be fit for his Masters defence.
McIlroy will be in the field, however, and will be looking to finally finish the job. Anybody else would be delighted with the start he has made to 2020 but he will be incredibly frustrated not to have finished off the job yet. Not for the first time in his career, he has been found wanting in the final round on more than one occasion, missing fairways and, crucially, short putts. This, hopefully, will be the week when he puts that right.
Woodland, too, had been showing some fine form. He works with English coach Pete Cowan and revealed at the Genesis Open that Cowan had spotted something when they were working together at the Honda Classic. Within minutes, the US Open champion was striping it again, and has to be somebody to keep an eye on.
And Brooks Koepka will be desperate to rediscover the form that took him to the top of the world rankings. Since returning from injury he has been only a shadow of the man who has dominated the game for the past couple of seasons, comfortably missing the cut at the Honda Classic.
It was won in 2014 and 2015 by Matt Every, in 2016 by Jason Day, in 2017 by Marc Leishman, in 2018 by Rory McIlroy and last year by Francesco Molinari.
Rory McIlroy. Come on Rory!
Billy Horschel. Playing some fabulous golf
Gary Woodland. Really fancies the job
Rory McIlroy. Time to win again
Billy Horschel. Massively underrated
Gary Woodland. Wonderful ball striker
Jason Day. Still looking for his best form
Marc Leishman. Has no weaknesses
Francesco Molinari. Too good to keep struggling
Xander Schauffele. Brilliant young American
Bryson DeChambeau. Does it his own way
Hideki Matsuyama. Changed his swing and looking to prove it was the right thing to do
Justin Rose. Loves tough courses
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