AUGUSTA, Ga. – Put yourself in these golf shoes for just a minute: You’re tied for third after two rounds of the 2014 British Open at Royal Liverpool. In the third round, you’re paired with Rory McIlroy, who leads by six strokes, and Dustin Johnson. They’re both big hitters and big winners. You feel as if you’re joining Lady Gaga and Stevie Wonder … but you’re Weird Al Yankovic.
You are Francesco Molinari. You’re from Italy, which is not the home of golf. These guys are battleships. You’re a tugboat.
“I went out Saturday and saw that I didn’t stand a chance, really,” Molinari said. “I didn’t play my best golf, but even if I had, there wasn’t much I could do to compete against them. That was a big wake-up call.”
One last what-would-you-do question. You’re 31 years old in 2014, at mid-career. Do you give up? Do you settle for just making a nice living in golf? Or do you change everything, risking everything, and work harder than you’ve ever worked?
You already know the answer if you follow golf. Molinari won the Open last year at Carnoustie, outlasting Tiger Woods, among others. When play was halted for a thunderstorm here late Friday afternoon, Molinari already had finished off a 5-under 67. When the day ended, he shared the Masters lead at 7-under 137 with four other major champions, all big hitters: Jason Day, Brooks Koepka, Louis Oosthuizen and Adam Scott (scores).
© GOLFFILE/FRAN CAFFREY
Francesco Molinari, who has transformed his game, finds himself in contention at another major championship.
Molinari ranks among the game’s best ball-strikers, and through his redoubled efforts, he’s now on the short list of major-championship favorites. Or, he would be if Johnson, McIlroy, Koepka, Tiger Woods and other more glamorous players weren’t around.
Americans tend to overlook international players, in general.
Imagine if Molinari had done all that work and it hadn’t paid off. You never hear those stories. Molinari’s work did, though, and here he is, a major champion and a big-time Ryder Cup hero.
He joked earlier this week that he’s no spring chicken. Augusta National doesn’t know how old your chicken is. See Bernhard Langer. He still puts up scores in the 60s while he’s in his 60s.
Comedian Kevin Hart likes to say that “everyone wants to be famous, but nobody wants to do the work.” Hart does the work. So does Molinari, in the gym, on the range and maybe most of all, on the practice green.
This is where Molinari has done something I consider historic. Plenty of players have gotten stronger and longer and improved their swings. Few have dramatically improved their putting and sustained it. Most putting-improvement stories are players who once were good putters, lost it, then got it back. Name someone who was a poor putter and made himself into a good putter. Um…
Vijay Singh putted much better for about 18 months when he unseated Woods as the No. 1 player in the world. Then he reverted to form. Other than Singh … all I can come up with is Molinari. This is quite extraordinary.
He keeps getting how he did it in the wake of his British Open victory. Especially since his old putting form assured that he never would win a Masters. These greens, with their big slopes and high speeds, are for players with Ph.D.s in putting. In downhill skiing terms, they’re rated double black diamond. Descend at your own risk.
Molinari and coach Phil Kenyon changed everything, starting about a month before last year’s Masters. His setup went from upright to crouched. His stroke path went from inside-to-out to neutral. He changed putters and putter shapes. He went from a line on the putter head to a dot. He changed his tempo.
“I could have started putting left-handed,” Molinari said with a laugh, “and it would have been a similar process.”
The secret of golf isn’t much of a secret: It’s putting. Golf is about getting the ball in the hole, not about hitting the ball. Now Molinari excels at both. He is eight-for-eight in scrambling so far this week, according to Masters stats, which curiously don’t count his zero-for-one in sand saves. He’s a scorer, not just a hitter.
“I feel a massive difference when I’m on or around the greens compared to my previous times here,” he said. “It’s a part of my game that has improved a lot in the last 12 months, and this is a course that puts a lot of stress on the short game and putting. I’m happy that, so far, I’ve done better than in the past.”
You can look forward to TV repeatedly flogging the story about how a much-younger Francesco once caddied for his brother, Edoardo, in the 2006 Masters, and the irony of how Francesco is now in the hunt for a green jacket.
“It was my second season as a pro, and it was great motivation to see how good the guys were and see how much I needed to improve to hopefully one day get here,” Molinari said. His goal at the time, he conceded, was just to get to Augusta once. Not win a Masters but just play in one.
His other goal was not to become a caddie. “I didn’t learn a lot that week about the course, to be honest, because we were going sideways most of the time,” he said, laughing. “It’s not great fun to caddie around here, I can tell you that.
“It’s been a pretty cool journey. It’s nice to see how much things have changed in 13 years.”
Molinari is near the lead in a major championship going into the weekend again, just like that time at Royal Liverpool. This is a different course. Molinari is a different player. He put in the work. He won the Open. He is sure that he is ready for this.
At least he’s not caddieing this weekend.
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle