SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – Go back through the European Ryder Cup history books and take your pick.
Seve and Ollie. Faldo and Woosie. Clarke and Westwood.
All decorated champions, but none can match the unexpected heights reached this week by, of all people, Tommy Fleetwood and Francesco Molinari.
The 2018 Ryder Cup appears headed toward a European victory, and should Thomas Bjorn’s side leave France with the trophy on Sunday it’ll be remembered both for his decision to pair the two friends together and the blistering form both displayed at Le Golf National. Four matches up, four matches in the win column for a pair of European stars that some casual fans might struggle to pick out of a lineup.
The search for chemistry when crafting pairings is one of the most difficult burdens a captain shoulders, constantly questioning which path to take. Will two emotional players fuel each other? Would a pair of stoic stars be best equipped to handle the emotional turmoil? Where does the mélange exist between the two extremes?
They’re the questions that Jim Furyk will likely be asking himself for some time after nearly every move he made through the first two days failed to deliver. But when it came to crafting Europe’s answer to Spieth-Reed (or Spieth-Thomas), there wasn’t any debate.
“He’s one of my best friends, not just on Tour but in life,” Fleetwood said. “I’ve been very, very lucky to get partnered with Fran. We knew we wanted to play together.”
“It was pretty much written in stone,” added Molinari.
It’s a matchup that, on paper, makes a ton of sense. Molinari is playing the best golf of his career, highlighted by his win at The Open two months ago. Fleetwood won on this golf course last year, and he displayed a knack for coping with stifling pressure during a final-round 63 at the U.S. Open in June.
But their ability to exceed the sum of their parts this week, en route to guiding the Europeans to a 10-6 lead, has surpassed even their leader’s expectations.
“There’s not much you can say about it. It’s a remarkable performance,” Bjorn said. “Speaking to the stats guys and the vice captains, there was never any red flags with the two of them, so I thought, ‘OK, we’ll give it a go.’ But from there, to what they have done, is pretty remarkable.”
The blemish-free record vaulted them into rarified air, joining Americans Lanny Wadkins and Larry Nelson (1979) as the only other pair to go 4-0 together in team play. But it wasn’t just the result of the matches – it was who they beat, and how they did it.
Three times the duo affectionately termed “Moliwood” squared off with Tiger Woods, himself just a week removed from a watershed victory. The first required a comeback, as the Euros turned a 2-down deficit through 12 holes into a 3-and-1 win.
But the next two, plus a foursomes win that gave Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas their only blemish, were never in doubt. The Europeans never trailed in any of their last three matches, and they had a lead for all but four of the 43 holes they played. No match extended beyond the 15th green.
“We ran against two guys that were both playing well, and when one was out of the hole, especially in best-ball, the other one made birdie and vice versa,” Woods said. “They did that a lot to us. At one point they made what, six out of eight birdies on the back nine, and only one person was in the hole at a time.”
Just as Olazabal tempered Ballesteros and Woosnam ignited Faldo, so too the variant emotions of Fleetwood and Molinari have meshed this week to create a brilliant product. On one side you have the Englishman, fiery and animated while soaking in his Ryder Cup debut. On the other stands Molinari, the game’s preeminent flat-liner whose machine-like ball-striking hasn’t wavered since the summer solstice.
“Francesco, it’s like he’s leaning on golf shots and they land about 3 feet from the hole,” Bjorn said. “I don’t know what planet he lives on, but it’s not the one that the rest of the players live on, that’s for sure.”
The combination helped them topple the game’s biggest star, not once but thrice, while providing the edge for their 10 teammates who played the U.S. to a draw in the other 12 matches.
Both Fleetwood and Molinari joked that they’ll be sad to see the other go, having to forge their own path during Sunday’s singles matches with Europe on the doorstep of triumph. But now forever joined in the Ryder Cup history books, they’ll likely get the band back together in two years’ time at Whistling Straits – much to the chagrin of the Americans.