POTOMAC, Md. – After Italy's Francesco Molinari torched TPC Potomac in 62 on Sunday to win the Quicken Loans National, tournament host Tiger Woods wondered at the prize ceremony what Molinari had eaten for dinner the night before.
"Pasta," Molinari said. "That's my secret weapon."
I'd prefer to believe his run of good form has more to do with lunch. After Molinari completed his morning pro-am Wednesday, I waited behind the 18th green to chat with him. I hadn't spoken with him since he was kind enough to do an interview with me for another story while he ate lunch after the third round of the Wells Fargo Championship in early May in Charlotte, N.C., where he eventually tied for 16th. Since missing the cut a week later at the Players, Molinari has been on a heater: winning the European Tour's BMW PGA, finishing second in the Italian Open and, after a T-25 in the U.S. Open, about to blitz the field by eight strokes here for his first victory on U.S. soil (“Keeping score,” July 2). I joked with him that good things come to those who break bread with a journalist.
© GOLFFILE/EOIN CLARKE
Francesco Molinari, one of the game’s top ball-strikers, has won on two continents this year.
"We should talk over lunch, then," Molinari said, breaking into a smile.
Deadlines for me prevented such a repeat scenario, but had we conducted another sit-down interview that day in player dining, I'd likely have a standing invitation to do so every time Molinari teed it up after his dominating performance outside the nation's capital.
Molinari, 35, has been something of an enigma to me. His ball-striking – especially off the tee – is practically second to none. Spain's Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano, who has played against Molinari since they were teens at a junior tournament in Italy, summed up Molinari's ball-striking prowess for a story I wrote last year for The New York Times.
"If you want to calibrate your TrackMan," Fernandez-Castano said of the electronic device that gives real-time measurements of golf shots, "take it to Francesco. He's a machine."
Chicco (pronounced KEE-ko), as his friends call him, has won five times on the European Tour, captured the World Cup with his brother, Edoardo, played on two victorious European Ryder Cup teams and owns a World Golf Championships title, but something had seemed to hold him back. In October, I asked him to explain why he didn't take the top prize more often.
"The long game can take you only so far," Molinari said. "You can be in contention and have good finishes more often than other people, but when it comes to crunch time, you have to make the putts at the right time."
On Sunday at the Quicken Loans, Molinari made a 48-foot bomb for eagle at the 10th hole, which kick-started a run of four straight birdies. But as PGATour.com's Sean Martin pointed out, Molinari could've finished 72nd of 74 in strokes gained putting and still won. It helps when you're putting for birdie from inside 20 feet on 40 of 72 holes.
Molinari's instructor, Denis Pugh, shared with me a different theory Sunday about why his pupil hadn't lifted more trophies.
"I tell him he hasn't won as much as he should've because he's trying too hard to win," Pugh said. "Francesco has to let it happen rather than trying to make it happen."
To that point, Sweden's Alex Noren began the day seven strokes off the lead at the HNA French Open but birdied 16 and 17 en route to winning his 10th European Tour title with a closing 4-under 67. After watching everyone else left on the course fold for a one-stroke triumph, Noren said, "I never thought I was going to win."
Pressure can make a golfer do peculiar things. Kevin Na, another steady performer who has kept his card by racking up top-10 finishes while banking millions with just one career Tour victory, says that every time he has finished second, he has tried to do something different the next time, to no avail.
"The key to winning is not trying," said Na, echoing Pugh. "You almost need to have a 'no-care attitude.' "
Another player with all-world talent but few victories to show for it is Paul Casey. When he rallied from five back to win the Valspar Championship in March for his first Tour title since 2009, Casey teed off hours before the leaders and didn't think he was in the trophy hunt until the closing few holes. Yet two weeks ago at the Travelers Championship, the role was reversed for Casey, who blew a four-stroke lead as Bubba Watson stormed from six back in the chaser role.
Closing is hard. The best in the business – ever – was Woods, who is fast approaching five years without a victory. He has shown more patience in this latest comeback and continues to temper expectations. But it's troubling to see Woods stumble every time he sniffs the lead. There were water balls at the Honda Classic, back-nine bogeys and a conservative 2-iron tee shot at 18 at Valspar, a snap-hook OB tee shot at No. 16 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, an ugly bogey from 100 yards at 14 at the Players Championship (followed by a water ball at 17), and a balky putter at the Memorial.
Winning is a habit. At the Memorial in May, tournament host Jack Nicklaus suggested that Woods needs to re-learn how to win. To illustrate what he meant, Nicklaus recounted how he won the 1986 Masters at age 46 with his masterly closing 30 on the back nine Sunday at Augusta National.
"Finally, I made a putt at 9 and I remembered how to play," he said. "All of a sudden, you remember, particularly if you've been a champion at one time. You'll remember, and you have that to draw on. Tiger has it to draw on. But he's got to get through the barrier of not having done it for a while."
Molinari seems to have broken through his barrier. Pugh predicted that once he did, he would win in bunches, and insisted, "He's capable of a major, maybe two."
As for Woods, he seemed pleased with his new mallet-style putter despite ranking last in the field at the QLN from inside 10 feet (60 of 73), but didn't hide from the fact that his rounds continue to stall on the second nine during crunch time.
"The last two days playing 13, 14 the way I did, you know, I bogeyed 13 twice and then didn't birdie 14 either day and I was right next to the green," Woods said. "Those are things that I can't afford to do and expect to win a golf tournament."
Those are things we're not accustomed to seeing him do while he rolled to 79 Tour titles. Yet, last week was simply a dress rehearsal for Woods, a chance to test his new putter under tournament conditions and monitor how much work and adjustments he needed to make before the British Open in two weeks at Carnoustie. Maybe that's where Woods will break through his barrier and rediscover the cold, calculating way in which he used to lay down the hammer on Sundays. After all, now he knows Molinari's secret weapon: pasta.
Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf.com and The New York Times. He is the winner of the National Sports Media Association's "Golf Article of 2017," and the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @adamschupak