Hawk’s Eye: Could former Masters caddie Francesco Molinari be next to don a green jacket?
The hottest golfer in the world over the last 10 months wasn’t even the best player in his family until he reached his mid 20s, which is an interesting storyline anytime, especially this week. When Edoardo Molinari earned a spot in the 2006 Masters by virtue of his winning the U.S. Amateur the previous summer, his younger brother Francesco handled the caddieing duties.
They were paired for the first two rounds with defending champion Tiger Woods, who never could have guessed that the Italian dude in the white jumpsuit would beat him at the British Open 12 years later. Francesco was 23 at the time, a fledgling pro who had earned his European Tour card a year earlier while Edoardo pursued a degree in engineering at his hometown university.
Born 21 months apart in Turin, the fourth-largest city in Italy, the Molinari boys were built differently, played differently, and as it turned out, navigated very different career paths. Those roads met on high ground in 2010, when both Molinaris made Europe’s Ryder Cup team—Francesco as an automatic qualifier, Edoardo on a captain’s pick from Colin Montgomerie.
It wouldn’t be long before the older brother began to struggle. A string of injuries knocked Edoardo from a career-best 15th in the World Ranking to 225th by the end of 2012, and he hasn’t cracked the top 100 since. He’s currently 564th. Although he still sprinkles in a decent week amid piles of missed cuts, it’s probably a good thing Edoardo obtained that engineering degree.
Francesco picked up his first Euro Tour victory barely a month after caddieing for his brother at Augusta National. “That was the first time I saw close up how the best players play,” he recently told the Augusta Chronicle. “I realized I was a decent player, but I had a lot of work to do. I think just that being there with Edoardo was a great motivation to push even harder and try to get there one day.”
It took him 4½ years to reach the top 50 in the World Ranking, at which point Francesco still hadn’t won for a second time. He qualified for the 2010 Masters in addition to making the Ryder Cup squad on points, but if great ballstrikers make a lot of money, the best putters collect the biggest paychecks. Francesco was a tee-to-green machine but the 12-footers on the weekend were holding him back.
He broke through in a big way at the HSBC Champions in late 2010. The tournament had just been designated as a World Golf Championship by the Euro Tour, which was a bit silly since just a handful of Americans (including Woods) made the trip to China, but it was a solid international field nonetheless.
Molinari beat Lee Westwood by a stroke; nobody else finished within 10 shots of Francesco. It was a poignant example of how good he could be when he capitalized on an abundance of scoring opportunities, but it was also a mirage. Over the next six years, Molinari won just once—against a mediocre field in Spain. He didn’t become a full-time member of the PGA Tour until 2015, but that didn’t change things.
Consistent? Yes. Among the very best in the game? Not quite.
Then it just happened. Molinari began 2018 with 10 consecutive U.S. starts and failed to register a single top 10. He missed the cut at the Players Championship, flew across the Atlantic and, out of nowhere, won the BMW PGA Championship, which is still the biggest non-major on the European Tour.
He finished second at the Italian Open, managed a T-25 at the U.S. Open, then destroyed the field in an eight-shot victory on the tour’s final trip to Washington, D.C. After finishing in a four-car pileup for second at the John Deere, Molinari flew off to the British Open, wiped out a three-stroke deficit on Sunday and landed atop the strongest leaderboard we’d see all year.
Not bad for a guy who can’t putt.
It would be nice to say that Molinari barged into pro golf’s first-class cabin because he finally overcame his inefficiency on the greens, but that certainly wasn’t the case. He ranked 182nd last year in strokes gained putting, 190th in total putting, 162nd in one-putt percentage and 126th in three-putt avoidance.
That’s a whole lot of bad. Statistics have been known to be deceiving, especially in golf, but a man who ranks so low in so many categories is not burning up the cup with his stroke. Not that those numbers meant a thing last September in France, when Molinari turned his third Ryder Cup appearance into a week he’ll never forget.
He became the first European ever to go 5-0 in the biennial matches vs. the United States—the only American to do it was Larry Nelson back in 1979. Having won all four of his partnered bouts with Tommy Fleetwood, Molinari secured the clinching point Sunday with a 4-and-2 beatdown of Phil Mickelson. This after taking Tiger to the woodshed three times in the first two days.
So what’s a man do for an encore after such a performance? Molinari has wasted little time in picking up where he left off. His closing 64 to win at Bay Hill might be the best round played so far in 2019. He reached the semifinals of the WGC-Match Play before running out of gas, but he arrives at Augusta National after a week off, armed not only with the confidence of a man still swimming in the sea of success, but some new numbers to strengthen his chances at Augusta National.
Twenty-third in strokes gained on the greens, 20th in 2019 overall, 21st in holing his first attempt. Who said the Italian dude in the white jumpsuit can’t putt?
All views expressed in this column are those of John Hawkins and do not necessarily reflect those of the Caddie Network.