Martin Dempster: Joke claiming Bay Hill was ‘biggest moment’ of Francesco Molinari’s career

Arnold Palmer's grandson, Sam Saunders, right, helps winner Francesco Molinari put on a tournament sweater. Picture: Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP
Arnold Palmer's grandson, Sam Saunders, right, helps winner Francesco Molinari put on a tournament sweater. Picture: Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP
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According to Paul Azinger in his commentary for NBC, it was the “biggest moment” in Francesco Molinari’s career. Really? Bigger than becoming Open champion? Bigger than becoming the first European to win a full five points in a Ryder Cup? Bigger than winning his home Open? Bigger than winning a World Golf Championship?

What on earth was going through Azinger’s head when the man who recently succeeded Johnny Miller in one of the most-coveted broadcasting posts in the game overlooked all of that to claim that Molinari winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill on Sunday was the highlight of the Italian’s golfing life.

Sure, it was an impressive victory. Very impressive, in fact. A closing 64 on a course with firm greens did the trick. Molinari mode, let’s call it that, is a joy to watch these days. He’s always hit lots of fairways and lots of greens. Now his putting is of an equally-high standard. A 45-footer for birdie at the last in the final round capped what he reckoned had been the “best putting round ever in my career”.

There is simply no way, though, that claiming victory in a regular PGA Tour event, even if it is the one that honours “The King” himself, eclipsed Molinari’s main previous achievements and, in particular, winning a major the way he did at Carnoustie last summer.

Was Azinger forgetting that Molinari got his hands on the Claret Jug after playing in a group with Tiger Woods in the final round? Did he not remember that the man from Turin also held off strong last-day challenges from both Rory McIlroy and Justin Rose, among others? Did he forget Molinari closed with bogey-free rounds of 65 and 69 to become 
Italy’s first major champion?

Take all of that into consideration and what Azinger claimed really was a joke. For a man who showed real passion for the Ryder Cup when leading the US to victory at Valhalla in 2008, it was also puzzling that, in delivering his assessment of Molinari’s performance in the Orlando event, he didn’t seem to give that historic feat at Le Golf National in France last year the credit it deserved.

Helped by that fantastic effort, Molinari’s confidence has soared. He’s now chalked up four worldwide wins in the past 10 months. He’s a different man to the one who lurked in the shadows when he secured the first of three Ryder Cup appearances in 2010 at Celtic Manor, where he lined up alongside his older brother, Edoardo.

“It’s nice, especially after last year,” said Molinari as he savoured a success that lifted him to seventh in the world rankings heading into this week’s Players’ Championship at Sawgrass.

“Obviously a lot of people were asking me, ‘how are you going to follow up last year?’, and the way was just to work hard and keep improving what we thought, myself and my team, that we could improve. Obviously this shows that we did a good job during the winter.”

What next? Well, more majors certainly can’t be ruled out. With a tie for 19th having been his best effort in seven previous appearances, it might be a tall order for him to land the Masters in a month’s time. Putt the way he did on Sunday, though, and there’s no reason why he can’t be in with a chance of adding a Green Jacket to the Red Cardigan that was slipped over his shoulders at the weekend.

That prized piece of clothing had been claimed 12 months ago, of course, by Rory McIlroy, but the Northern Irishman has now featured in nine final groups since the start of 2018 without managing to close out for victory. Yes, of course, that’s a statistic that he’s not exactly pleased about, but that win is going to come soon.

On Sunday, McIlroy made 61 feet of putts compared to Molinari making 146 feet. Even if you take out that long one at the last, it was a telling statistic. That’s now five events this year, though, that he’s finished in the top six, so why, really, should he not be feeling anything but confident about his latest bid to complete a career grand slam in that opening major of the season at Augusta National?

“Yeah, my Sundays haven’t been what I would have liked, but I’m putting myself in that position, so good golf is good golf. I keep saying that,” he said. A month on Sunday would be the ideal time, of course, for that run of final-group disappointments to end.