Regarded as one of the “steady eddies” in the game since turning professional 14 years ago, the 35-year-old from Turin had four European Tour titles to his name and had also made two winning Ryder Cup appearances before the start of this season. If it had stayed at that, Molinari might well have been happy enough with his career.
It just shows you, though, how “good” can become “great”. Since holding off McIlroy to claim the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth in May, Molinari has gone from strength to strength. A first PGA Tour triumph quickly followed in the Quicken Loans National, finishing eight shots clear of a field that included Woods.
Before arriving at Carnoustie for the 147th Open Championship, the London-based player had also chalked up two second-place finishes – in the Italian Open and the John Deere Classic, his warm-up event for the Claret Jug contest as opposed to the Scottish Open at Gullane. In short, he was in the form of his life and Spieth, for one, was not surprised in the slightest that Molinari succeeded him as Champion Golfer of the Year at the end of a dramatic final round on the Angus coast on Sunday.
“He’s been playing unbelievable golf. He’s been working his butt off. I see him in the gym all the time, going through his routine, grinding on the range, doing his own stuff. It truly is hard work that paid off for Francesco,” said the American. “I’m certainly happy for him. I’ve watched this through the PGA Tour this year day in and day out, seeing him work as hard as anyone else.”
In recording his hat-trick of title triumphs over the past couple of months, Molinari has had only one bogey combined on the weekend. “Yesterday wasn’t hard not to make a bogey,” observed Spieth, pictured, of the course set-up and weather conditions on Saturday having been conducive to good scoring. “But today was pretty ridiculous.”
Molinari signed off with rounds of 66 and 68 to see off McIlroy at Wentworth. “He didn’t miss a shot,” said the Northern Irishman of playing with him on the Sunday there. “He’s always been a great player.
“I think there’s just maybe a little more belief with how he’s played this year. So there’s going to be a lot of European guys vying for his partnership in the foursomes at the Ryder Cup, that’s for sure. He’s a fantastic golfer. He’s a great guy.”
For someone who has long been admired for his arrow-like long-iron game in particular and also accuracy off the tee, the statistics behind Molinari’s success at Carnoustie showed exactly why he is now in the world’s top ten, having jumped to sixth in the updated rankings.
He was 74th in fairways hit and 23rd in greens in regulation. It was around the greens that he created history, reaping the rewards of the technical work he has put in on his putting with Phil Kenyon, as well as from adding performance coach Dave Aldred, who was Jonny Wilkinson’s mind man when he kicked England to victory in the 2003 Rugby World Cup final, to his backroom team. With a total of 111 putts over the four days, he finished fourth for the week in that category. Key putts in the final round included a couple of big par saves before the turn and, of course, the shortish one for a birdie on the last that effectively sealed victory.
While Woods may have been focusing on his own game, the way his playing partner went about his business didn’t go unnoticed. “It definitely was his short game,” said Woods of how he felt Molinari had come out on top on a bunched leaderboard down the back nine. “I mean, he chipped it beautifully. I know he made a couple of putts here and there for par, but to get it to where it was basically kick in from some of the spots he put himself, that was impressive. Great touch. You could see him actually try to hit a couple with cut spin, a couple of draw spin. You know, he was working the ball around the greens, and that was cool to see.”
Molinari’s swing coach, Denis Pugh, must take a lot of credit for him passing the biggest test of his career with flying colours on the toughest finish in golf. “This victory is the end result of so much hard work by Francesco on all departments of his game. The three parts – swing, short game and performance – have really gelled together,” the Englishman told www.golfdigest.com.
“He had played poorly at the Players Championship in May. So poorly that we pretty much went back to basics. And it worked. Since the Wentworth win he has just gone on and on. Francesco plays his best when he is thinking about his swing. He gets good feelings from his mechanics. So we haven’t worked on anything new. With him, it’s just a case of going over and over the old stuff. That’s not very sexy, but it works.”
It does indeed and now Molinari is hoping his success can inspire a new generation of Italian golfers in the build-up to the 2022 Ryder Cup in Rome, just as he was when watching Costantino Rocca come so close to getting his hands on the Claret Jug when he lost in a play-off to John Daly at St Andrews in 1995.
“Obviously, to achieve something like this is on another level,” admitted the new champion.
“Hopefully, there were a lot of young kids watching on TV today, like I was watching Costantino in ’95 coming so close. Hopefully, they will get as inspired as I was at the time, watching him vie for the Claret Jug.”
Rocca, who is back in St Andrews this week to try to go one better in the inaugural Senior Open on the Old Course, expressed his delight for Molinari in a post on Twitter. “Great demonstration of strength of character and concentration,” he wrote on the social media site. “You beat the field and all the strong players. In a word: unforgettable. Thanks Chicco! Joy is indescribable.”