By DOUG FERGUSON
AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Francesco Molinari still recalls his first experience at the Masters, especially the nerves of trying to pick the right club for the par-3 12th, all while having defending champion Tiger Woods in the same group.
That was 13 years ago. He was caddying for his brother, Edoardo, the U.S. Amateur champion.
“I carried the clubs and prayed that he was going to hit good shots,” Molinari said. “It’s a tough course to caddie around.”
Molinari was on his second year on the European Tour, and he picked up his first victory a month after the Masters. Now he is 36, and while he jokingly refers to himself as “no spring chicken,” the Italian has emerged as one of the threats at Augusta National this week.
He might not look imposing because he lacks the power that garners so much attention in the modern game.
Molinari just plays the best golf.
“Francesco is dangerous, isn’t he?” three-time Masters champion Nick Faldo said.
It didn’t happen overnight, and not without enormous work on his swing and the mental side of the game. The results speak volumes. Since he left Augusta National last year, Molinari won the European flagship event at Wentworth, shot 62 in the final round to win the Quicken Loans National, captured his first major by outplaying Woods at Carnoustie to win the British Open and became the first European to go 5-0 in the Ryder Cup.
If that wasn’t enough, he rallied past the likes to Rory McIlroy and Tommy Fleetwood to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational, and only a tough three-putt from above the 18th hole kept him from reaching the final of the Match Play.
He has never finished better than a tie for 19th at Augusta National. He’s never been playing this well, either.
“I’m in a much different position to where I was coming in the last few years. I can’t deny that,” Molinari said. “I feel good about my game — beginning of the week, I think pretty much everyone does. All majors — I think here, Augusta, especially — they are tough tests, and if you are not on your game, you’re going to pay the price for it.”
But confidence comes with results, and Molinari has had plenty of success.
Power never hurts at Augusta National, though Molinari believes it is among the greatest second-shot courses in the world, and statistics bear that out. Ball striking long has been the hallmark of his game, refined by swing coach Dennis Pugh, and Molinari has worked hard on his driving to get a little more distance without sacrificing anything other aspect of his game for a few extra yards.
The putting, no doubt, also has improved greatly.
But while Faldo referred to him as “dangerous,” he might not look that way walking onto the tee.
Imagine being in the last group Sunday at the Masters. Would someone of Molinari’s stature command attention the way McIlroy or Dustin Johnson would?
“Probably not, no, for the physical way he plays the game,” Faldo said. “But now that we’ve seen how he mentally handles it, we kind of know this guy can handle the pressure. Look how he handled Carnoustie. That’s doesn’t happen by accident. It’s good thinking, good decision-making, good shots. The Ryder Cup, as well.”
The Ryder Cup is different in so many ways, though the results are no less impressive.
Molinari and Fleetwood — the famous “Moliwood” partnership — took down Woods and Patrick Reed twice. They handed Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas their only loss in team play at Le Golf National. They beat Woods and Bryson DeChambeau. On his own, Molinari whipped Phil Mickelson in 16 holes.
Presented with the notion that he might not have as intimidating presence as the big hitters, Molinari doesn’t disagree.
He doesn’t back down, either.
“I can see the point, obviously, but I think that’s one of the things that motivated me a few years ago to work harder and to look at ways to get better,” Molinari said.
He recalled five years ago at Royal Liverpool, where heavy rain led the British Open to start the third round from both tees in threesomes for the first time. McIlroy was leading by four shots over Johnson. Molinari, six shots behind, was the third in the final group.
“I could play as well as I wanted, but I didn’t stand a chance,” Molinari said. “That was I think a big turning point for me. It’s all about perspective and how you take things. I took it like, ‘If I want to keep doing this job and do it at a high level, I need to work as hard as I can and see if I can get closer to those guys.’
“Now when I go out, play with Brooks (Koepka) or Dustin or Rory or whoever you can name, I’m not really intimidated,” he said. “Because I feel like I can compete with them, even if I’m not hitting the ball 370 yards. I’m hitting it long enough to be competitive and to use my strengths to get good performances.”