PARIS — Listen up, Ryder Cup rookies. Francesco Molinari, the Open champion, has a warning about what awaits in Paris: “Now I’ve won a major, and have been down the last few holes with a chance, I can safely say there’s more pressure in the Ryder Cup … it’s not even close to how I felt at Carnoustie.”
And this was not just Carnoustie, for Molinari, but Carnoustie. This was him at the top of the leaderboard with his first major on the line, playing in a final day pairing alongside Tiger Woods. This was him going from golfing also-ran to major winner. This was him needing an extra seat on the plane for the Claret Jug. This was not just any old emotion or experience. But then, despite all that, the Ryder Cup is on a different level.
Molinari was talking ESPN through a remarkable few months which saw him land the BMW PGA Championship on the European Tour and then win The Open and then weigh up what is facing him and his fellow Europeans over the coming days at Le Golf National. His voice gets a touch more serious when weighing up the Ryder Cup. In short, rookies should prepare for unrivaled tension and being on the cusp of golfing euphoria or desolation.
But pressure is no longer an enemy to Molinari, who will be the only member of the European team this week who is currently a major champion. On Molinari’s website is a section labeled “Meet the Team.” It lists his manager, coach, caddie, trainer, putting coach, performance coach and physio. While it was his caddie, Pello Iguaran Valle, he hugged first after slotting his 6-foot putt on the 18th at Carnoustie to take the clubhouse lead, there were contributions from each of his team in that eventual triumph after he decided to step away from the familiar.
Molinari was 78th in the world when he first met and appointed his performance coach Dave Alred a little over two years ago. Now, Molinari is ranked fifth. “Many times in professional golf and sports in general, the difference in the results might be massive, but the actual difference in the process might be tiny,” Molinari told ESPN in his ever introspective manner, but his team saw the improvements.
Alred — who worked with rugby greats Jonny Wilkinson and Johnny Sexton along with Australian Rules footballers — brings a coaching philosophy of pushing athletes into what he terms the “ugly zone,” making training uncomfortable but accountable. Rather than hit a bunch of golf shots and call that done for the day, he asks Molinari to hit 10 within 10 feet, or sink five 6-foot putts.
“One of the issues I had, and similar to a lot of golfers, is that practise is repetitive, standing in one spot trying to hit the target, many times, or trying to find something in the swing, hitting balls until you think you’ve found it,” Molinari said. “I’ve gone away from that type of practise, I’m more demanding on myself, putting a consequence on every shot, trying to achieve something and trying to recreate a feeling out on the course when you’re under the pump and you need to produce a shot at a certain time — you won’t have another chance, so you have one chance or it’s gone.”
He had missed the cut at the Players Championship in May and afterward, he sat down with his team to pick through exactly where things had gone wrong. The exact words of what was said in that café remain private, but his swing coach Denis Pugh told ESPN there was a “full and frank exchange on what was needed to keep progressing.”
Molinari remembered feeling his golf was technically sound but mentally, he was off. “I wasn’t producing the right shot at the right time, I didn’t have the sharpness or intensity,” Molinari said. “I could hit the shots, but I couldn’t do it when I needed to, so we tweaked the practise routines so that they became more demanding, mentally, and I managed to basically switch on better after that week.” This was where Alred stepped things up, along with his other coaches. That meeting of the brains trust would prove to be the catalyst for him then going on a run of triumphs, including the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth within two weeks of their café meeting, and which culminated in claiming the Claret Jug in mid-July.
Pugh put Molinari’s Carnoustie success down to the “combined talents of the coaching and caddy staff, ‘Team Molinari’ … of course, Francesco threw in his talent and application, too.” Molinari had learnt to “apply his internal battles in a positive way … by channeling his instincts into useful calm thinking,” according to Pugh.
Phil Kenyon, Molinari’s putting coach, singled out the final putt on the 18th as a shot where all of their hard work had come together. “It was proof, really,” said Kenyon. “We’d spent quite a bit of time in the weeks building up, inside 6 feet, within that distance, holing-out range. There were a couple of putts he’d holed early on in the back nine and were key in keeping the momentum for the up-and-downs. Ultimately you’ve got a 6-footer on the last, right-to-left, and that putt there was testament to the work he’d done and how far he’d come in that short time period.”
Molinari is now no longer permitted golfing anonymity, something he still clung to as the final groups closed out their Open campaign. When he was confirmed as winner it was hardly like the scenes greeting Woods’ first win in five years in Atlanta on Sunday. Instead, Molinari was sat in the scorers’ hut, alone, and simply felt relief.
“All the tension builds up but when I knew I had done it, the main feeling was relief from that tension — it was a bit of a surprise, or a shock,” Molinari said. “I always wanted to win a major but it came sooner than I was expecting.”
Now, Molinari feels he has more to offer in the Ryder Cup than he did on his previous two outings in 2010 and 2012. On his debut, he played alongside his brother Edoardo, was full of praise for Colin Montgomerie‘s captaincy but contributed just half a point as Europe won 14½-13½ at Celtic Manor. Two years on and he was following in Martin Kaymer‘s shadow as his victory over Steve Stricker secured the Miracle of Medinah with just Molinari and Tiger Woods left on the course. Molinari halved with Woods to secure the overall win, amid celebrations that had already started.
“It was a bit anticlimactic as once Martyn had holed the putt we knew we’d retained the trophy and we weren’t even sure if they wanted us to finish the match,” said Molinari, who confessed that he was not thrilled to be paired with Tiger when they were announced at Medinah on Saturday night. “But I remember the match itself, apart from the ending, was incredible: playing against Tiger, last in a Ryder Cup when after eight or nine holes, you look at the board and you see it’s coming down to you or the match in front of you. That’s proper pressure, like in the major.”
Kenyon, his putting coach, expects Molinari to probably let his golf do the talking in Paris, rather than being one of the more vociferous members of the European team. “There are different personalities but everyone finds their way in the team environment to do their bit,” Kenyon said. “I don’t know how Fran will be, but if he puts five points on the board, no one will give a s–t. He’ll find his way.”
When Molinari won at Carnoustie, he received congratulatory tweets from Italy’s prime minister and Inter Milan, the team he supports. There was also a tweet from American pro Wesley Bryan, who published some quotes from the Italian when the two spoke in China back in October last year. It outlined Molinari’s plans to retire in “2.5 years” and “watch sports on TV, go to local coffee shop and have three cups per day, read some books maybe, use free Wi-Fi at places and become a Twitter troll. … I have it all planned out.”
Things have changed a little now, but Molinari’s priorities have not. “That was kind of a joke… but I started pretty young and I’ve always said I don’t want to still be on tour playing golf when I’m 50. I’m planning to retire pretty early if possible and if I’m lucky enough to do it,” Molinari said. “My family’s my No. 1 priority outside of golf and the travelling is not easy. I [would] love to spend more time at home before the kids become too old and they don’t want to spend time with you.”
A further victory at the Ryder Cup and Molinari will get more acclaim. But his views on the sport won’t change. He will continue in his own calm manner, focusing on making every shot count and ignoring the outside noise. Pressure? What pressure.
“For me it’s always a passion first of all, and I love to practise and spend time on the course. It’s what I love to do,” Molinari said. “When I was a kid, or a teenager growing up I dreamed of making the Tour and that hasn’t changed.” For now, those retirement plans look like they are on hold.