Francesco Molinari – the Little Big Man of Italian golf. I loved seeing him rise out of the pack to win The Open Championship in 2018. I loved that he fended off the muscular, long-hitting stars of the game such as Brooks Koepka, Rory McIlroy, and Tiger Woods by sheer guts and composure at Carnoustie last year. And I loved that he was rewarded for a four-year commitment to improvement when he could have settled for chugging along earning nice cheques and resting on his laurels as Italy’s best golfer from a small list of contenders.
All the more reason, then, to feel a pang of disappointment as Frankie, the Open Champion of 2018, and playing partner Shane Lowry, the 2019 Open Champion, ruefully shook hands on the 18th green at Olgiata GC in Rome last Friday evening knowing they had both missed the cut at The Italian Open.
That had to hurt both players, but particularly Molinari.
This was his home Open, a tournament he had won twice – 2006 and 2016 – and the Italian galleries desperately wanted to see Frankie in contention for the title. It was also a Rolex Series event, with huge money and lots of world ranking points at stake, so there was much to regret for the 2018 Race to Dubai champion.
That said, Molinari’s campaign this year has been impressive without achieving the spectacular run of success he enjoyed last year. The highlights so far have been victory in the Arnold Palmer Invitational, his third win on the PGA Tour, and a third place finish in the WGC-Dell Match Play. In the Majors, he was tied-5th at The Masters, tied-48 at the US PGA Championship, tied-16 at The US Open, and tied-11 at The Open in Royal Portrush.
All of that is not too shabby, to say the least, but I wonder if Molinari had greater expectations of himself following his glorious 2018 – and let’s not forget that he was a Ryder Cup hero at Le Golf National, winning five points out of five matches, four of them in partnership with Tommy Fleetwood for Thomas Bjorn’s winning team against the USA.
As a reminder of how good he was in 2018, the European Tour website has a fascinating article on the statistics behind Molinari’s rise to glory. The article, written by Justin Ray, Head of Content at the website 15thclub.com, shows just how much Molinari improved his game to break into the elite group of Tour golfers.
Justin Ray writes: “Francesco was impressive throughout last year, but his highest levels of performance came during a six-event stretch between his victories at the BMW PGA Championship in May and The Open Championship in July.
“During those six worldwide starts, Molinari won three times, finished second twice, and had a respectable tie for 25th at the U.S. Open.
“There were a combined 888 opposing players in those six tournaments – Francesco finished ahead of or tied with 97.1% of them. In his last 12 rounds during that stretch, he had a scoring average of 66.7 and was a combined 48 strokes under par.
“Of course, Francesco’s trademark iron accuracy played a big role. During that run, he averaged nearly 1.5 strokes gained per round on approach shots. In all three of his wins, he was incredibly clutch down the stretch, avoiding mistakes at all costs.
“He went bogey-free his last 44 holes at the BMW PGA Championship, his last 28 holes in his win in the United States, and his last 37 holes at The Open Championship.”
What a phenomenal level of performance and, of course, a helluva lot of work went into raising Molinari’s game over a long period before the fruits of his hard work translated into tangible results.
This year, however, despite the Arnold Palmer Invitational victory, Justin Ray reveals a relative drop in the quality of Molinari’s golf.
“Francesco will be the first to admit he hasn’t matched his remarkable performance levels this year. On the PGA Tour, Molinari’s iron play has not been as strong in 2019, dropping outside the top 100 in their metric of strokes gained approach.
“He also hit under 64 percent of his greens in regulation on that Tour, a far cry from the consistency he displayed in years past, typically cracking the 70% mark.
“On the European Tour, he ranks a respectable 43rd in driving accuracy, but it’s his lowest personal position in twelve years.”
Interesting. Very interesting. Why should this be the case? The answers have come to an extent from Molinari himself as he discussed in the aftermath of winning the Claret Jug.
“It changes your life, really, especially for a guy like me that, you know, likes to go a little bit under the radar and doesn’t really need the attention. Every tournament you play there’s more things to do. And obviously time with the media, but also with sponsors and various different things to do.
“The time you have to prepare for tournaments is not the same and you just need to learn to make the most of it and do things many times in a shorter time than before,” he said.
He is still only 36, although he seems to have been around forever, but Molinari is adamant that his basic attitude never changed, before or after his Open victory.
“I’m working as hard as I can. You know, in sport and in golf in particular, I think it’s not always easy to know exactly which direction you need to go, but I’m doing my best.
“The start of the year was very good, and there’s been some tougher weeks on the course, but you know, I’m still working hard. I think I’m trending upwards right now, and obviously a lot of big tournaments still to play in until the end of the year.
“Hopefully I can get something before the end of the year,” he said.