A mid all the trumpet calls, glory and excitement of the 2018 Ryder Cup in Paris, a week which transformed European golf’s perception of Francesco Molinari from popular Italian to cult hero, one moment stands out.
It came in the aftermath of Europe’s 4–0 Friday afternoon foursomes dismantling of the Americans which in one fell swoop turned a 3–1 deficit into a 5–3 lead. The galleries were ecstatic, the atmosphere euphoric, his teammates giddy.
Yet Molinari was having none of it. “We didn’t come here to win the foursomes,” he said. “We came here to win the Ryder Cup, and it’s not over.”
Simple words, straightforward sentiments, but essential, single-minded and revealing: an insight into the golfer he had become. One for whom a good start was only that, for whom near misses were no longer sufficient, for whom drive now equalled ambition.
It is easy to assume that Molinari’s 2018, a season which witnessed unparalleled worldwide success, must have been prompted by one promising result. Easy, maybe, but incorrect because golf’s upward curve very rarely runs without deviation.
Arriving at TPC Sawgrass for The Players Championship in mid-May, Molinari was well aware that he had finished top ten in the three previous editions of the tournament and top 20 the week before.
“I was very confident, too confident,” he says. “I felt so close to good results and I was playing very well in practice, but Denis was there, and he was a little concerned by my technique.”
Denis Pugh has been Molinari’s swing coach for the past 15 years. Together, over many hours at The Wisley, they have honed one of the most admired swings on the European Tour.
“Normally,” says Pugh, “if I was doubtful, Francesco would act immediately, even at a tournament, but this time he was chirpy and happy. He put his arm around me and said: ‘Don’t worry, I’ve got this’.”
“It’s true,” admits Molinari. “Except I didn’t have it. I shot 73–73 and missed the cut. It was a big wake-up call, but it was also a vital experience and a lesson learned.”
“It was a very low point,” agrees Pugh. “We returned to England, worked hard and I said to him: ‘Never ever tell me you’ve got this’. In fact, for the next few tournaments, before he left the range, I’d say, ‘Have you got this?’ and he’d reply, ‘I haven’t got a clue’. We weren’t joking; we were quite serious. Anyone overhearing us might have been concerned, but we knew what was happening. We knew it mattered.”
Two weeks later Molinari made the short journey to Wentworth for the BMW PGA Championship. Like Sawgrass he possessed a fine record there: five top tens in his six previous starts, three times the halfway leader, in 2015 he had still had it after 54 holes and yet the win wouldn’t come.
Many would have argued the record reflected his career; that the then four-time winner on the European Tour contended far more often than he converted. When a Saturday 66 earned him a share of the lead with Rory McIlroy those same observers might have wondered why this time should be any different. The Sawgrass wake-up call maybe? Yes, that mattered, but so, too, it transpires, events of late 2016.
“I had played two Ryder Cups (in 2010 and 2012), but then I had missed two (2014 and 2016) and I just didn’t like how things were going,” says Molinari. “I sat down with the people around me and we decided to turn it around.”
“It wasn’t as simple as one meeting,” remembers Pugh. “Instead it was a pretty honest and hard look at the facts. He was swinging the club extremely well, but not getting results on the course and that’s always concerning. I said to him, ‘You’ve got a very, very good career and if you want to continue it, carry on. But if you want a great career there’s got to be changes.’ He agreed and initiated the changes himself, such as working with Phil Kenyon on his putting. He takes responsibility like that.”
A key detail was the consequence of good fortune when John McLaren, one-time caddie for Luke Donald, filled in for Molinari’s bagman for one week only. “John showed Francesco some practise ideas that the performance coach Dave Alred had used with Luke and it piqued his interest. John recognised they would make a good match and made introductions.”
Most famous for working with rugby legend Jonny Wilkinson, Alred focuses on execution under pressure and in golf terms he has two unique traits.
The first is that he knows nothing of the golf swing.
“But it doesn’t matter because he understands performance,” says Pugh. “High jumpers, ballet dancers, tennis players – whoever performs on the edge, he’s very, very good with them.”
The second Alred quirk? He tosses away the driving range rule book on smacking ball after ball after ball.
“My practice is a lot less repetitive now,” says Molinari. “No more 200 balls in two hours going bang, bang, bang. Now every shot has a consequence, recreating tournament conditions. It’s about knowing that I have only one shot, one opportunity. If you don’t take it, you don’t get another chance.”
Some 18 months after those changes in late 2016 McIlroy turned to his caddie towards the end of the final round at Wentworth and gasped: “Frankie is like a robot. He never seems to miss a shot. Ever.”
Molinari completed a fourth round 68 to claim a two-shot victory: the serial contender was now champion.
Seven days later an emotionally exhausted Molinari rode the wave of home support to finish second in the Italian Open. Back on home soil there was the opportunity to reflect on the difference between the man he is now – to those of us outside the ropes one of the most unflappable characters in the game – and the boy he was.
“Oh I had a temper,” he laughs. “I would throw clubs and break them too. From ten to about 15 I was terrible. At the time I just wasn’t mature enough to control my passion. Fortunately, my dad punished me with weeks and months without golf. Eventually it taught me to contain myself – and actually just stop looking stupid.”
The fervour remains, and is an intrinsic part of the bond he has formed with his coach.
“We got on pretty much immediately because we’re similar personalities,” says Pugh. “We both appear to be easy going and calm, yet we’re also both very passionate about what we’re doing so there is potential for clashes, but we rarely have them which is good!
“He’s still got a temper, but I think that fire in the belly and the ability to control it most of the time is what makes him a champion.”
“My passion for the game,” adds Molinari, “is what drives me. Every tournament I show up at I can’t wait to get started. It’s what makes the difference, what prompts me to want to get better all the time.”
A disappointing U.S. Open prompted a return home. If tournaments are Molinari’s shop front, then time spent at The Wisley appears to be when this golfing craftsman is comfortable in his workshop.
“I need time with my game, to make my swing feel good and ready,” he explains. “There have been many long days when I might not finish until I am so tired, but I know that in those times with Denis, Dave or Phil I have learned something that somewhere down the line will prove vital.”
“There are several skills Francesco has,” adds Pugh. “A strong mentality, huge desire and self-belief, but his ability to be coached is one of his primary skills.”
In his next start he went into the final round of the Quicken Loans National tied for the lead and carded a sensational 62 to complete an eight-shot victory, his first on the PGA Tour: “One of those days when everything goes right. It’s a great feeling, but one you really don’t get very often in golf.”
The watching tournament host, Tiger Woods, had one word for the round: “Phenomenal.”
Molinari made his major championship debut at Carnoustie, the tough Scottish links course nicknamed “Car-nasty”, and he’d never really liked it. He missed the cut in that first appearance and became so disillusioned with the layout he stopped attending the European Tour’s annual visit to it.
The course remained a conundrum on Friday of the 147th Open Championship, when a double-bogey six on the 17th hole left him outside the top 25 and six shots behind the leaders heading into the weekend.
“I was so far back I took a different mindset into Saturday. The course was wet, there was no wind, it was a day to be aggressive: I went for it.”
A 65 left him three shots back in a tie for fifth, but his immediate thoughts were elsewhere.
“I was hoping not to get paired with Tiger,” he says. “Not because I don’t like him, but because it would be chaos. When our pairing was confirmed I knew what happened next was important.”
“I began to prepare myself mentally, recalling past experiences of it. It helped a lot. I was ready. I was taking responsibility.”
On the final day of any Open, spectators follow their favourites and then drift towards the grandstands around the 18th green. On this Sunday they drifted in the opposite direction to join Woods, who was leading the tournament at the turn. The predicted chaos was exactly that.
For any shot by Woods there was rapt silence and no movement; for Molinari it was bedlam. On the 13th green Woods completed his par and the crowds surged towards the 14th tee, like commuters racing for the exit at Waterloo in rush hour.
In the middle of them all, Molinari was bent over his par putt and in the distance, peering across and through the hoardes coming her way, his wife Valentina, tensed as she waited for the putt to drop. When it did, she bent at the knee, fists and face clenched in celebration.
One moment among many on that back nine when Molinari defied his course history, the field, the galleries and arguably the greatest golfer ever to secure the Claret Jug: not just his but also Italy’s first major championship victory.
The year was not yet finished, but the season he had enjoyed had transformed the role he would assume at his third Ryder Cup.
“The whole captaincy team were talking to me all week,” he explains. “They told me I had to take the lead, not so much in partnership with Tommy, but in the team room. It helped me; it was the first time in a Ryder Cup that I felt the complete trust of the team.”
In the first session Molinari and his partner for the week Tommy Fleetwood were the only Europeans to earn a point. By the end of the week they had collected four points together and Molinari added a further point in the singles.
The partnership, christened Moliwood, joined the great Severiano Ballesteros/Jose Maria Olazabal combination as Europe’s most loved and feted. Golf fans had always been fond of Molinari, now they were in love with him.
“It was like a wonderful revelation to the public of what I’d known all along,” says Pugh. “The reason Moliwood worked so well is that Tommy brings out all the factors that are already there. They’re good mates, which helps – but Tommy has a very lovely way of being confident but not arrogant, and that confidence spreads to those around him.
“I think that’s the one fear Francesco has. He would hate to be thought arrogant. He’s modest in demeanour, but not in ambition.”
The week started with people wondering if the city of Paris could ever be afflicted with Ryder Cup fever. It might not have ended with a parade down the Champs-Élysées, but Molinari’s arrival at Gare du Nord on Monday morning prompted a remarkable station-wide chorus of songs celebrating the success of Moliwood.
“It was so incredible to experience,” says Molinari, still a little in awe. “It just shows why the Ryder Cup and the European team are so precious. That would never have happened after the Open.”
In 1996, 13-year-old Francesco Molinari ran home from school one Monday afternoon in May to watch the final holes of the PGA Championship from Wentworth on television because his compatriot Costantino Rocca was in contention.
The youngster was inspired to see Rocca complete the win, just a few months after he had narrowly failed to win the Open Championship and a year before he would play in the final round of the Masters, where he would watch playing partner Tiger Woods win his first major championship.
What does 36-year-old Molinari think that boy would say if told that he would not only emulate Rocca at Wentworth, but join him as a Ryder Cup hero and then better him by winning the Open (playing with Woods no less)?
“He would be very, very happy,” he laughs, a little shyly. “And I think he would have been very excited to watch it all unfold on television.” In reality, he did better than that: with hard work, tough questions, honest answers, a strong team and family bonds, that boy earned and lived it.