12 April 2019: To some in the golf world, Francesco Molinari’s climb to the top of the leader board at Augusta National Friday was surprising, if only because the unassuming Italian does not attract a lot of attention.
But his hold on that spot after a second-round 67 put him at 7-under par would have been considered downright shocking as recently as a few years ago.
Although he has long been a solid ball striker, the 36-year-old was considered a good but not great golfer, lacking in length and not a particularly adept putter. He joined the PGA European Tour in 2005, and over the next decade won just three tournaments on that circuit. While he did make a couple of Ryder Cup teams during that stretch, in 2010 and 2012, he earned only half a point for the European squad each time.
But several years ago, Molinari began working on every aspect of his golf game – from physical conditioning and nutrition to putting and short-game play – so he could become more than an average tour professional.
“I surrounded myself with people who I trust and think are going to give me the possible advice,” he says. “We looked at every angle to try to get better.”
And he got better in a hurry.
It started with a strong second place finish in the 2017 PGA Championship. The next year, he broke through with an eight-stroke win at the Quicken Loans National on the PGA Tour and followed that a couple of weeks later with a victory in The Open on the nasty championship course at Carnoustie, Scotland.
That made Molinari the first from his land ever to win a major, and it also made people start to take note for the first time of how good the durable man with the dark, almond-shaped eyes could really be. His taking the title at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill last month only heightened their interest.
Now, Molinari is at the top of the Masters leader board.
“I am getting confidence from every win,” said Molinari, who came into this year’s Tournament at No. 7 in the Official World Golf Ranking. “I have done a lot of work the past few years, and sometimes it does not pay off straightaway. Now, the success is coming quite often, and that’s a nice feeling. So I’ll try to keep working to keep them coming and win as many tournaments as I can.
“You know, I am not a spring chicken anymore,” he added with a chuckle. “So, I need to make the most of it.”
Nowhere have the improvements been more apparent than in his putting. Molinari has never been in the top 30 in terms of putts-per-round in his seven previous Masters, and as recently as a year ago, he was 163rd in putts-per-round on the PGA Tour. Clearly, those are not good places to be for a golfer who wants to win at Augusta.
“I have pretty much changed everything with my putting,” he said. “We started with my set-up, where I used to stand more upright, and now I am crouching more down towards the ball. My path used to be a lot more in-to-out, but now it tends to be a lot more neutral. I’ve changed my putter, and the shape of my putter, and use a dot for alignment as opposed to a line. Tempo, too.”
The results of those alterations have been startling. For one thing, Molinari is currently ranked 20th in putts-per-round on the PGA Tour, and he seems to feel more and more comfortable at Augusta, as the bogey-free 67 he shot on Friday indicates.
“I feel a massive difference when I am on the greens here compared to my previous times,” he said. “And yes, putting has been a part of my game that has improved a lot in the last 12 months.”
So has his play off the tee, and the genesis for that came during the 2014 Open at Royal Liverpool.
“I was paired with Dustin (Johnson) and Rory (McIlroy), and I didn’t have a chance,” said Molinari, who was dismayed at how much longer those players were off the tee. “That was a big wake-up call, and since then, I have also done a lot of work in the gym and on the range so I could hit it a little longer.”
Happy as he is with how far he has come, Molinari acknowledged that there is more work to be done. But he also knows that the work he has done to date puts him in a very good position to win the Masters.