Forget about holding off a posse of the world’s best players to win a Claret Jug at Carnoustie.
Much as though Francesco Molinari enjoyed that, becoming Italy’s first major winner in the process, it’s nothing compared to the adrenaline rush of joining forces with Tommy Fleetwood to put Europe on course for a stunning success in the 42nd Ryder Cup in the Paris suburbs. “Nowhere near. Nowhere near,” said Molinari in reply to being asked about that comparison. “It’s been absolutely amazing.”
He was speaking after a memorable two days, both for him personally and the European team, who have recovered from losing the opening session at Le Golf National to lead 10-6 heading into the concluding singles. Molinari and Fleetwood have won four matches out of four for Thomas Bjorn, the home captain, to leave victory tantalisingly close for Europe. It’s the first time a European pairing has taken all four points from the opening two days of play.
As on the opening day, Molinari and Fleetwood were “magnifique” for their captain. Three of their wins have come against Tiger Woods. “They never missed a putt inside ten, 12 feet. That’s hard to do,” observed former world No 1 Woods, who did the same thing himself, of course, as he claimed 14 majors, as well as countless other titles.
This is Molinari’s third appearance in the event. He was on winning teams at both Celtic Manor and Medinah in 2010 and 2012 respectively. Until this week, though, he hadn’t delivered a full point. Claiming four in two days – their victims have also included Masters champion Patrick Reed and Bryson DeChambeau, a two-time winner in the recent FedEx Cup Play-Offs – has been very satisfying indeed.
“Like yesterday, we came here to do a job, and it wasn’t to go in the record books or anything like that,” said Molinari, pictured inset. “It’s about the team, it’s about getting to 14½ points. We’re getting closer, but those 4½ points we need tomorrow, we’re going to have to fight hard for them. They’re 12 great players. It’s not going to be easy. But we’re doing it properly. We’re doing it the right way.”
Fleetwood, a rookie, has taken to this event – with a pressure-cooker atmosphere unrivalled in golf – like a duck to water. Based on how he’s played over the past couple of seasons, winning the Race to Dubai last year and knocking on the door in the US Open this year, that isn’t really much of a surprise. “A little bit emotional right now,” he admitted after the pair had claimed the last of their wins in the pairs format. “The piece of history together is very special and I’m just glad that we’ve done our job for the team.”
Referring to Molinari, the Southport man added: “He’s one of my best friends, not just on Tour but in life. He’s an amazing golfer and I’ve been very, very lucky to get partnered with Fran. I could give him all the compliments in the world.”
After Fleetwood and Molinari, Justin Rose and Henrik Stenson were Europe’s most successful pairing over the first two days, winning both times out in the foursomes. A gritty win over Dustin Johnson, the world No 1, and Rickie Fowler, regarded as one of the fiercest competitors in the US team, came after they’d been rested in the morning.
“That’s been our number,” said Rose of the pair being sent out at the top of the order, where they were equally successful for Paul McGinley in Europe’s 2014 triumph at Gleneagles. “We didn’t play dream golf. I don’t think we kicked into gear 100 per cent, but we did enough. And Henrik had balls of steel with the putts he hit on 16 and 17 [holing a seven-footer for a half then knocking in one from ten feet to seal the win].”
In the main, Bjorn has been spot on with his pairings here. He’s also not been scared to stick to his gameplan a couple of times. Paul Casey and Tyrrell Hatton had tasted defeat on the opening day, but the Dane handed them another chance in the fourballs and was rewarded for doing so. The pair were nine-under for 16 holes as they beat Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler, earning sweet revenge against that pair in the process from day one.
“Yeah, there was a tear,” admitted Casey, making his return to the event after a ten-year absence, having been encouraged to rejoin the European Tour as a member by Bjorn so that he could make himself eligible for this tussle. “I was emotional. I’ve always been a bit that way. Hey, I’m not embarrassed. I care about it. It means an awful lot to me.
“I’m proud to be on this team and proud to be standing next to those 11 team-mates and proud to win a point. I set my sights on trying to make this team. I knew it would be an amazing team. I wanted to be part of that. But it wasn’t just sort of to get here and be part of the team, it was to try and win a Ryder Cup back.”
For Hatton, who has Prestwick man Mark Crane on his bag, it was a pleasing first point on his first appearance in a Ryder Cup. “He’s tenacious. He fights,” said Casey of his fellow Englishman. “He’s one of the world’s best putters. For me, Ryder Cups are so often won and lost on the greens; the guys make putts versus the guys who don’t.”
Unlike last week, when he returned to winning ways by claiming the Tour Championship in Atlanta, a tired-looking Woods hasn’t holed many putts in his three games as Molinari and Fleetwood have been knocking them in relentlessly. “Just pretty p***ed off,” said Woods of how he was feeling. “The fact that I lost three matches, and didn’t feel like I played poorly. That’s the frustrating thing about match play.”