GLENEAGLES, Scotland – Edoardo Molinari will be under a different kind of pressure when he returns to Gleneagles to defend the Johnnie Walker Championship title he won in dramatic circumstances last year.
On that occasion, the 30-year-old Italian needed a victory in Scotland to effectively seal his place on Europe’s team for the 2010 Ryder Cup at Celtic Manor—and did so by making birdies on the final three holes to pip Australia’s Brett Rumford by one shot.
It helped establish Molinari as a high-profile member of the European Tour but he hasn’t won a tournament since then, and his struggles with the putter have resulted in just one top-10 finish this season.
The 50th-ranked Molinari said he hopes a return to the scene of the “most special week of my career” sparks an upturn in fortunes.
“Obviously, I have great memories of last year. I like the course and it’s one that sets up to me eye really well,” said Molinari, whose win earned him the right to stay in one of the Gleneagles Hotel’s plushest suites this year. “I have been hitting the ball very well lately - probably the best I’ve ever hit the ball in my career.
“My putting hasn’t been working, so I’ve been trying a few things and hopefully things start solid for this week.”
With Ryder Cup points not at stake at Gleneagles this year, the 156-man field is lacking major names. At No. 22, Edoardo Molinari’s older brother, Francesco, is the highest-ranked player at an event that has a total prize money of $2.3 million.
But those who are present - the list also includes Colin Montgomerie, Ross Fisher and the winner of last week’s Czech Open, Oliver Fisher - will get another opportunity to check out the PGA Centenary Course that will host the 2014 Ryder Cup against the United States, the competition’s first return to Scotland in 41 years.
“It’s a great venue, we have known that for a long time,” said Scotland’s Paul Lawrie, the 1999 British Open champion. “(Course designer) Jack Nicklaus coming back on board to make a few changes is a positive step.
“I think in two or three years’ time the course will be ready, there’s no question. It’s going to be a good Ryder Cup here.”
Changes to three holes - Nos. 7, 12 and 14 - and a firming-up of the greens, at the request of players, have been well received, with Montgomerie saying the course “has never looked better.”
Montgomerie, who is also the tournament’s chairman, hasn’t played since the Scottish Open at Castle Stuart at the start of July. He failed to qualify for the British Open for the first time in 22 years and also missed out on the PGA Championship.
The 48-year-old Scot, an eight-time winner of the European Order of Merit, is down to No. 285 in the rankings but believes he has a chance this week on home turf.
“It’s the longest (playing) gap I’ve had ever in the middle of my career, so it has been difficult,” said the 2010 Ryder Cup captain. “But I’ve been practicing quite hard and my putting is a lot, lot better than it was.
“If I can putt well and keep the ball in play, I have a chance to content, not just compete.”
Montgomerie will play alongside next year’s Ryder Cup captain, Jose Maria Olazabal of Spain, for the first two rounds.
Edoardo Molinari, who also won the Scottish Open last year, tees off alongside Danish veteran Thomas Bjorn while Francesco Molinari is paired with fellow Ryder Cup player Fisher in the 13th edition of the tournament.
“So far, Edoardo has had all the success in Scotland and I’m keen to follow his example this year,” Francesco Molinari said. “We’ve won a number of tournaments between us but have yet to win the same title, so that’s what I’ll be aiming for this week.”