News & Opinion

Molinari, Fleetwood give Europe 'belief'

SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – The biggest fear for U.S. captain Jim Furyk heading into the first day of the 42nd Ryder Cup at Le Golf National was that one of his players would be overwhelmed by the moment.

“Believe me,” he said. “I’ve seen some ‘Oh, [expletive]’ faces in the Ryder Cup, I'll say that. I’m sure I’ve had a couple myself.”

If anyone wore that expression on Friday, it might have been Furyk, who watched helplessly as Englishman Tommy Fleetwood and Italian Francesco Molinari teamed up to become giant killers. First, they downed Patrick Reed, a.k.a. Captain America, and his sidekick Tiger Woods, 3 and 1, in morning four-balls and then trounced Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas in afternoon foursomes, 5 and 4 (scores).

The victory in the morning session prevented a whitewash and secured Team Europe with its first point. The triumph in the anchor match of the afternoon alternate-shot format locked up the first time Europe has ever swept all four foursome matches. It gave the home team a 5-3 advantage heading into the weekend.

Francesco Molinari, Tommy Fleetwood
Francesco Molinari (left) and Tommy Fleetwood walk all over the Americans, winning both of their matches Friday and helping stake Europe to a 5-3 lead in the Ryder Cup.

“They gave us belief,” said Bjorn, emphasizing the importance of eking out one point in the morning session.

To earn their first big scalp over Reed and Woods, Fleetwood and Molinari dug themselves an early hole, losing three holes to par on the front nine to trail by two with eight to play.

“We just started making some putts, to be honest,” Molinari said. “Patrick [Reed] holed a great chip on 10, and I think that kind of got us going, in a way. We had nothing to lose at that point.”

Molinari birdied the 11th and 12th, and then Fleetwood took over with birdies at Nos. 15 and 16. Molinari closed out the match in style with a birdie at 17.

Despite it being the first birthday of Fleetwood’s son, Frankie, Bjorn called on the Englishman for double duty and sent his only effective pairing from the morning back out to face Spieth-Thomas.

“I think they just have a very special bond and relationship, and they have for a long time, and they love being on the golf course together,” Bjorn said of his dynamic duo.

Fleetwood, 27, is a Ryder Cup rookie, but he already has won the European Tour’s Race to Dubai and showed his potential to rise to the occasion when he shot 63 in the final round of the U.S. Open in June to finish second. Molinari, 35, is making his first Ryder Cup appearance since 2012, and earned his first full points. (He improved to 2-4-2.)

“Finally,” he said. “I love him. What can I say?”

Confirming that the feeling is mutual, Fleetwood added, “I love this guy, and he’s pretty good at golf, too.”

This budding on-course bromance between Fleetwood and Molinari, the reigning British Open champion, makes sense. Fleetwood, who is best known for his flowing brown locks, won the 2017 French Open and has tapped into a rare comfort level at Le Golf National this week. Two holes into the final round, he thought to himself, There's no way I can lose.

“I don't know how or why, but I felt very confident with my game,” Fleetwood said, and that sensation has carried over.

“He’s a really complete player,” Molinari said. “There’s no weakness in his game.”

Molinari, too, ranks among the game's best ball-strikers. His coach, Denis Pugh, calls his pupil the best mid-iron player in the world, and capable of hitting his 5-iron inside the wedge of the longest hitters.

“I played with Frankie in practice this week, and he barely missed a fairway and barely missed a green,” Ian Poulter said.

In afternoon foursomes, Molinari played solidly, if not spectacularly, and he and Fleetwood waited for the more ballyhooed American pairing to make mistakes. It didn't hurt that the scoreboards told a different story.

“We were walking down six and we said, ‘Sounds a little better this afternoon,’ ” Fleetwood said.

The Englishman also heard a supportive gallery cheer him to the tune of “Yellow Submarine” by The Beatles.

"Tommy Fleetwood is a golfing machine ... a golfing machine ... a golfing machine."

Fleetwood smiled and egged them on until Thomas prepared to hit his tee shot at the 12th hole. He later said that was his favorite song among several that his fan base crooned at the top of their lungs. (How about The Who's "Tommy Can You Hear Me?")

Earlier this week, Molinari conceded that he hasn't even had a sip of alcohol out of the Claret Jug yet, so not surprisingly he wasn't looking ahead to toasting a glass of champagne for a job well done at the Ryder Cup. Bjorn wisely paired his undefeated tandem again in this morning’s four-balls in a rematch against Reed and Woods.

“We didn’t come here to win the foursomes. We came here to win something else," Molinari said. "They are going to come out strongly tomorrow, so there's no time to celebrate when there's still a job to be done."

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: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak