ORLANDO, Fla. – Francesco Molinari has found a winning formula.
Before Molinari claimed the Quicken Loans National and hoisted the Claret Jug at the British Open in July, I asked the Italian what had been holding him back from claiming the top prize when he got in the trophy hunt. He had won four times on the European Tour, but he had failed to win in his first 120 PGA Tour starts. Molinari, a renowned ball-striker, paused and gave a thoughtful answer.
“The long game can take you only so far,” he 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.”
Molinari, 36, did just that in the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, burying a 44-foot birdie at 18 to cap a bogey-free 64 and claim a two-stroke victory over England's Matt Fitzpatrick (scores). His comeback from five strokes behind at the start of the day marked the third PGA Tour title for Molinari in his past 12 starts.
Molinari, the son of a dentist, got off to a promising start with a 21-foot birdie putt at the first and an 11-foot par putt at the second. For the round, he went on to make 146½ feet of putts, a career-best. But the other critical stroke on the front nine happened when he gave his putter a rest. Molinari's approach at the par-4 eighth sailed long and left, settling near a grandstand, and he was given relief. His pitch from 44 feet was nothing short of spectacular.
"I thought it was doable, and it came out perfect – soft and high – and landed in the exact spot as I wanted," he said. "Incredible to see it going in."
But the putting prowess that has lifted Molinari to new heights was the difference in the outcome, and his improvement to becoming "a decent putter" began here in Orlando a year ago. That's where Molinari began working with putting guru Phil Kenyon, who has improved Molinari's technique and helped him start putts more on line.
"Phil, he helps me in so many ways," Molinari said. "Before I was picking a line, but not many times the ball was starting on that line. So, then it's hard to make putts that way."
Said Molinari's caddie, Pello Iguaran: "It's been a fantastic improvement.”
The closing birdie putt at 18, a big bender from left to right, was shades of Tiger Woods, who made his share to close out the tournament in years past. Molinari called it an iconic putt and recalled watching Woods deal in the dark arts on the same green.
"It's still a bit unreal to think I've done kind of the same today," he said of his longest made putt this season.
Molinari noted it was the first putt he'd made leaving the flagstick in, and that he went against the advice of his big brother, Edoardo, the former U.S. Amateur champion who competes on the European Tour.
"He's probably going to tell me off when I speak to him later," Molinari said.
Last year, Molinari left TPC Sawgrass in May having missed the cut at the Players Championship, and it proved to be a turning point. Denis Pugh, Molinari's longtime swing instructor, convinced Molinari that he had the game to beat the best and that if he could improve his putting slightly, the victories would come. (Molinari ranked No. 182 last season in strokes gained putting, and has never gained strokes since playing regularly on the PGA Tour, beginning in 2015.) The next week, Molinari won the European Tour's flagship event, the BMW PGA, and a sizzling flatstick led him to victory at Quicken Loans and the British Open.
Molinari always has been a straight driver of the ball, and his laser-like iron game is the envy of most. NBC's Jim "Bones" Mackay may have put it best during the final round.
“He’s not the longest guy out here, but he can hit it straighter than most people can throw it,” he said of Molinari, who hit 86 percent of fairways and 78 percent of greens in regulation at the API.
Pugh goes so far as to say his pupil is the best mid-iron player in the world, capable of hitting his 5-iron inside the wedge of the longest hitters. But Molinari isn't one of the short knockers anymore. Added width to his swing and a performance coach to help improve his flexibility has paid off. Molinari averaged 301 yards off the tee, tacking on nearly 15 yards per drive from three years ago while remaining one of the best at finding fairways.
“Now he’s found inspiration with his putter, and he’s not wasting shots on the greens anymore,” Pugh said of Molinari, who gained nearly four strokes with his putter in the final round.
If there's one remaining knock against Molinari's game, it may be that he plays with a cold, calculating style. But even that critique took a hit with his performance at the Ryder Cup alongside Tommy Fleetwood, as they went 4-0 as partners in Europe’s victory. Still, Pugh contends that Molinari sometimes gives the impression that he would rather be in his father's dental chair than drilling golf shots straight at the hole.
“I just wish he’d smile more when he played,” Pugh said. “He’s got a good set of teeth. He should show them off a bit more.”
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: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @adamschupak