Justin Ray on the European Tour
09 October 2019: For an eight-season stretch from 2008 through to 2015, Francesco Molinari fit a specific archetype of player: precision over power.
In that span, Molinari never finished a European Tour season ranked worse than 13th in driving accuracy, and his average rank in that statistic was sixth. In that same span, he never ranked better than 93rd in driving distance and was outside the top 120 in that category on the European Tour seven times.
During this time, Molinari developed an earned reputation as one of the best iron players in the world. From 2008 to 2015, Francesco’s average greens in regulation rank on the European Tour was 19th and for ten straight seasons, he hit more than 70% of his greens in regulation, a staggering accomplishment.
Francesco has never been an elite putter – his average European Tour rank throughout his career in putts per green in regulation is about 90th – yet he has finished in the top ten in scoring average five times. This in itself is another testament to how great a ball-striker he has been.
As Molinari entered his 30s, he clearly put more emphasis on improving his clubhead speed and, in turn, his distance.
At age 35, Molinari swung his driver on average 5.5 MPG faster than he did at age 29. That may not sound like much, but the end result was significant: Francesco ranked in the top 50 in driving distance on the European Tour for the first time in his career in 2018. Compare that to 2011, when he ranked 173rd in that statistic.
Coupling that improved distance with his elite iron play, and you get what we saw last year: three wins around the world, seven top-ten finishes, a historic Ryder Cup performance, and an ascent into the world’s top five.
Raising his game in 2018
Francesco was impressive throughout last year, but his highest levels of performance came during a six-event stretch between his victories at the BMW PGA Championship in May and The Open Championship in July. During those six worldwide starts, Molinari won three times, finished second twice, and had a respectable tie for 25th at the U.S. Open. There were a combined 888 opposing players in those six tournaments – Francesco finished ahead of or tied with 97.1% of them. In his last 12 rounds during that stretch, he had a scoring average of 66.7 and was a combined 48 strokes under par.
Of course, Francesco’s trademark iron accuracy played a big role. During that run, he averaged nearly 1.5 strokes gained per round on approach shots. In all three of his wins, he was incredibly clutch down the stretch, avoiding mistakes at all costs. He went bogey-free his last 44 holes at the BMW PGA Championship, his last 28 holes in his win in the United States, and his last 37 holes at The Open Championship
2019 and onwards
Francesco will be the first to admit he hasn’t matched his remarkable performance levels this year. On the PGA Tour, Molinari’s iron play has not been as strong in 2019, dropping outside the top 100 in their metric of strokes gained approach. He also hit under 64 percent of his greens in regulation on that Tour, a far cry from the consistency he displayed in years past, typically cracking the 70% mark. On the European Tour, he ranks a respectable 43rd in driving accuracy, but it’s his lowest personal position in twelve years.
Still, with a decade-plus of ball-striking brilliance to fall back on, this should be a temporary hiccup in the mid-career renaissance of Francesco Molinari. There would be no better place to find that championship form than this week at the Italian Open.