Scottish Open: Majestic Francesco Molinari putts his way to the top
IF anyone had witnessed it, they’d have thought he’d won the Open Championship on the hallowed turf. Francesco Molinari, a teenager at the time, had just birdied the 18th hole on the Old Course at St Andrews and punched the air in delight.
It was a nice way to finish his first-ever round on a Scottish links. The putt, however, was to break 90.
Yesterday, after beating that effort by a staggering 27 shots to quickly open up a healthy lead in the £2.5 million Aberdeen Asset Management Scottish Open at Castle Stuart, Molinari was able to raise a smile as he reflected on his rude introduction to seaside golf.
“It was in the St Andrews Links Trophy (in 2000) and it was really windy,” said the 29-year-old Italian. “I birdied the last – a big relief – to shoot 89 on the Old Course. I was probably 18 at the time and had never played on a links course before.
“The wind was blowing at 30-40 miles an hour and I had to hit a driver then a 2-iron at the first. I also remember that one of my playing partners, after taking ten or 11 shots in a bunker at the eighth but still hadn’t escaped, picked his ball up and walked in. But somehow I [still] enjoyed myself and that was probably because I saw a different kind of golf that I had not seen before.”
Five years after Costantino Rocca sunk to his knees in the Valley of Sin and burst into tears after holing a putt at the 72nd hole to get into a play-off in an Open Championship that was eventually won by John Daly, Molinari also celebrated his personal success on the same green. “A big fist pump,” he replied when asked how he’d reacted to the putt that had kept his score in the 80s.
On a calm morning on the Moray Firth coast, Molinari was knocking in putts from all over the place yesterday. His eye had been in on Sunday, when he bolted home in 29 for a closing 64 to finish runner-up, a shot behind German Marcel Siem, in the French Open. And it was still in yesterday, when it seemed as though he had his golf ball on a piece of string.
A straight hitter – his overall game, in fact, is pretty similar to last year’s winner here, Luke Donald – London-based Molinari, who started at the tenth, covered his opening four holes in one-under before transforming his day with a devastating burst of nine birdies in 11 holes. With three holes left to play, he was in with a chance of joining golf’s elite “59 Club”, but the fireworks stopped.
Nonetheless, it was a sensational effort, lowering the course record at the Inverness venue by two shots in the process. “I know it’s not going to be this easy [all the time] but I’m feeling great at the moment,” admitted the leader.
“Quite often it is hard to follow a really good round with another one but everything went really well for me again today.
“I realised on the seventh tee [his 16th hole] that I was ten-under with three holes to go, but seven and eight especially are not really great birdie chances, so I thought it [shooting 59] was going to be hard. To be honest, I was happy to close with three pars.
“Last year was tough as I struggled with my long game, which is unusual for me. But I learned a lot about my short game and a few things are coming together now. I’ve been playing well all year and obviously holing some putts is making the difference in terms of my recent good scoring.”
Having made his Ryder Cup debut at Celtic Manor two years ago, along with his younger brother Edoardo – winner of this event in 2009 – Molinari, who has three European Tour triumphs under his belt, is determined to be in the team that defends the trophy at Medinah in September.
“The next month or so is really big for the Ryder Cup and that is probably more on my mind than [next week’s] Open Championship,” he added. “It would be amazing and fantastic to win The Open or any tournament from now to the Ryder Cup. But the main goal I have in my mind at the moment is to make the team.”
Donald, a certainty for Chicago, closed with a 63 here to lift the title 12 months ago and was going like a train again when he arrived on the fifth tee – his 14th – standing at seven-under. Two bogeys over the closing stretch undid some of his good work but, for a first competitive round in three weeks, a 67 still represented a decent effort from the world No 1.
“The fifth kind of stopped my momentum,” he reflected. “I hit my best drive of the day, only had a wedge and it looked good in the air – I was kind of surprised when I heard the groans,” he said of his ball ending up down a slope, from where his first effort rolled back down the bank in front of him.
“I had a sloppy bogey on eight after that but, overall, I’m satisfied to come back after three weeks and find some form pretty early on. I’m very close to being back in the groove – certainly a lot closer than I was a few weeks ago.”
Donald, who is bidding to become the first player in the event’s history to make a successful defence of the title, added: “You feel confident coming back to a place where you’ve won. I know how to win around this place and I made seven birdies today.
“It makes the mental side a lot easier, although the course is a bit tougher. It’s a shame we’ve had so much rain.
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Wednesday 22 May 2013
Temperature: 3 C to 13 C
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