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No longer bulletproof, but does Molinari still have enough firepower for Open defense?

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Wasn’t it just yesterday that Francesco Molinari was considered the most bulletproof player in golf?

Remember Bay Hill, where Molinari won with a closing 64 that was eight strokes better than the field’s final round scoring average?

But while professional golf might seem to move slowly, things can change in a flash. For Molinari, that moment came on the 12th hole at Augusta National in the fourth round of the Masters. With a two-stroke lead, the most reliable ball striker in the game rinsed a mishit 8-iron into Rae’s Creek.

Molinari fell into a tie with playing partner Tiger Woods, dunked another ball on the 15th, and would finish a forgotten T-5. At the next major, the PGA Championship at Bethpage, he missed the cut. His best finish has been a T-16 in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. The next week at Hartford, his last tournament played, he was 57th.

But this lull hasn’t gotten to Molinari. He’s been holed up at his home course near London, The Wisely, focused on making the best defense possible at The Open Championship, and rather pleased that he comes to Portrush under the radar. He doesn’t deny he was wounded by the Masters, but he lives to fight another day.

“It was still a very positive week,” he said. “I didn’t finish the way I wanted to finish, but it’s by far the best I’ve played at Augusta. No one is going to win every major he is leading.  Some you win, some you lose, and you just need to try it again.

“Yes, immediately after the Masters, I think I paid the price for the mental energies I burned up that week. But I’m on the up again and looking forward to the rest of the season.”

All very Molinari. On the course, his preoccupied expression may border on sad, and his stoic manner in TV interviews has been parodied with a dead-eyed monotone by impressionist Conor Moore. But in conversation, Molinari relaxes into a thoughtful and soulful student eager for new discoveries, the most dramatic of which have been the most recent.

Consider that in May of 2018, he was a 35-year-old who had won four times on the European Tour, but never on the PGA Tour. Ranked a respectable but unremarkable 33rd in the world, the book on Molinari seemed fixed: fine ball striker, but with pop gun power off the tee.  And by touring pro standards, a poor to sometimes terrible putter.

But quietly, Molinari was in the midst of an all-out mission to address the holes in his game. It was spurred by the Saturday of the 2014 Open Championship at Hoylake, when he shot a desultory 75 while paired in the final group with Dustin Johnson and eventual winner Rory McIlroy.

“Obviously I didn’t play my best, but just felt completely inadequate and unable to compete against them,” he said. “It just made me realize that I had to improve.”

The roots of such quiet determination were developed in Turin, Italy, where Francesco began to play at age 8 after his father, a dentist, purchased a family membership at the Torino Golf Club. It’s where, in a quick moment, his on-course demeanor was founded.

“I was quite emotional at the beginning,” said Molinari. “One day when I was 12 or 13, I snapped my putter on my knee. The punishment from my dad was three weeks without golf. And that was pretty harsh. But you know, it worked. I learned that for me the best way to score is to be calm.”

Pushing Francesco forward was a constant effort to match his older brother by two years, Edoardo, himself a three-time winner on the European Tour.

“We did everything together – skiing, tennis, swimming, rowing, table tennis, finally golf - always competing,” Francesco said. “To have a sparring partner like we had helped us massively in our career, especially early. Pushing harder to get better, to try to get better than each other.”

The relationship has remained close. Francesco caddied for his brother at the 2006 Masters after Eduardo had won the U.S. Amateur at Merion. At the 2009 World Cup, they teamed to produce an upset win for Italy.

“All week we were joking that we didn’t stand a chance against those kinds of players,” said Francesco. “Even on the course on Sunday, that’s what we were saying. It was just an incredible joy to achieve something like that together.”

The victory also reinforced a growing inner sense that much more was possible. “A constant throughout my career,” he said, “has been achieving something and starting to think, 'If I’ve achieved this, maybe I can achieve something more.'"

In 2018, Molinari achieved one of the greatest late career transformations in memory. He had put in the work with longtime swing coach Denis Pugh, but included putting coach Phil Kenyon, short game coach James Lidyard and performance coach Dave Alred.

The first three combined to methodically get Molinari longer off the tee and better on and around the greens. Alred, who has worked with Luke Donald and Padraig Harrington, trained Molinari to enter the “ugly zone” – digging deep in practice to summon the same mental energy required for success in competition.

“It’s different drills in which every shot matters - one repetition to produce something that you want to produce,” says Molinari. “I’m definitely much better at switching the brain on when it’s time to produce that shot.”

Molinari made an initial breakthrough finishing second at the 2017 PGA Championship, telling himself, “I belong here, I can play a major championship like I do any other tournament.”

Full-field tee times from the 148th Open Championship

Full coverage of the 148th Open Championship

Then a week after missing the cut at The Players, he won the European PGA at Wentworth in a head-to-head battle with McIlroy. Two months later, he got his first PGA Tour win at the one Quicken Loans, closing with a 62 to win by eight.

Molinari was tired when he arrived at Carnoustie for last year’s Open Championship, flying from Iowa after a closing 64 got him a tie for second at the John Deere, which he had only entered to fulfill the PGA Tour requirement to play at least one new tournament every four years.  He was also not a fan of Carnoustie. “I wish I could say I felt something special when you are about to win a major, but I definitely didn’t,” he says. “I was coming off some pretty good golf, but I got there with pretty low expectations.”

His opening two rounds of 70-72 were littered with small mistakes and left him six back. But Molinari caught fire on the weekend. First with a 65, and then, paired with Woods, a 69 climaxed with a clinching birdie at the final hole. Molinari didn’t make a bogey on the last 37 holes, and became the first Italian to win a major championship.

“It means a lot more now, that a year has gone by,” he said. "You feel you are really part of the history of the game. It’s been an incredible journey, coming from my country. The moment we all got together and Edoardo got his hands on the jug was very special. It was the closure of a circle for my whole family.”

At the Ryder Cup – where in four matches with Tommy Fleetwood and one in singles – he became the first European player ever to go 5-0. He topped off the week by partnering with Fleetwood in the hilarious “morning after" video, which provided a welcome counter to the idea of Molinari as robotic.

Yes, Brooks Koepka won two majors, but in terms of sustained excellence, Molinari arguably had a stronger claim to the unofficial title of player of the year.

This year hasn’t been as good, but that could change at Portrush. Regardless of how he plays, Molinari and his team will continue to push.

“We knew the changes we made would involve some risk,” he said. “But we didn’t want to settle for what we had at the time, and we don’t want to settle for what we have now. We want to try to really find where my limit is. And hopefully we haven’t reached it yet.”