Can TPC Sawgrass provide another inspirational spark for on-the-mend Francesco Molinari?

Francesco Molinari is chasing a fourth top-10 finish of 2021 and he’s also landed a few of them in THE PLAYERS down the years.

It's not often that a player can look back at two rounds of 73, a dire ball-striking performance, all of which resulted in a missed cut, and say with complete confidence: "There. That's the moment. That's when all the good stuff started."

But Francesco Molinari can.

The sensational run of success that the Italian enjoyed from the early summer of 2018 to spring 2019 was the consequence of a lifetime's hard work, two years of determined self-improvement, and, yes, the golfing equivalent of a pratfall.

That latter episode came at TPC Sawgrass in May 2018 and memories of it might prove fruitful both this week, as he continues the rebuilding process that has come with his re-location to California and mental rehabilitation during lockdown.

The Italian has enjoyed plenty of success in THE PLAYERS Championship, recording four top 10 finishes, and he's 10/1 with Paddy Power to do so again this year.

But, before discussing his chances of landing a fifth, let's remind ourselves of the significance of Sawgrass in his story.

Groundwork

Molinari had always been a supremely reliable European Tour performer.

Between 2008 and 2016 he was never outside the top 35 of the end-of-season rankings and frequently much higher.

He didn't win as often as he might, but, as of late 2016, he'd played a small but vital role in two Ryder Cup victories for Europe, was a World Golf Championship winner in 2010 and had just won his home Open.

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For most golfers it was a CV to be pleased with and proud of.

Not for Molinari.

He wanted more.

He wanted to be comfortable in the top echelons of the world rankings, he wanted to be a world class golfer, and he wanted to contend in the Majors.

More than that, he wanted to win them.

In autumn of that year he sat down with his coach Denis Pugh at The Wisley Club near London and determined a plan that involved finding extra length from the tee box whilst retaining his much-admired iron consistency.

He would also turn to Phil Kenyon for putting advice and Dave Alred to make him a more resilient performer when in-contention.

The trigger

What followed was 18 months of solid graft and the golf world knows that, when all that effort hit a tipping point, the results were sensational.

What's less well-appreciated is what triggered the sensational returns for all those hours on the range and the unbending faith in the quest and his team.

Because the spark was entirely accidental.

When Molinari rocked up to TPC Sawgrass in 2018 for THE PLAYERS Championship he was aware of his strong course record and also happy with his swing.

Molinari has one of the sweetest swings in golf.
Molinari has one of the sweetest swings in golf.

Pugh thought he saw something amiss, but Molinari waved away his concerns.

"Don't worry," he said. "I've got this."

Trouble is, he hadn't.

He missed the cut.

"It was a wake-up call," Molinari said and he was repentant.

For the rest of 2018 he and Pugh would remind themselves of those words - it became a mantra for staying in the moment, a reminder to never take anything for granted.

Boom

In Molinari's very next start there was an immediate bounce-back effect.

Like at Sawgrass, he'd had plenty of top 10s in the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth, but never the win.

This time he went head-to-head in the final round with Rory McIlroy and triumphed.

Five weeks later he won a first title on the PGA Tour.

By the end of the same month he was a Major Champion, lifting the Claret Jug at Carnoustie.

Molinari with the Claret Jug.
Molinari with the Claret Jug.

Before the summer was out he had become the first European golfer to play and win all five matches in a Ryder Cup.

His partnership, and bromance, with Tommy Fleetwood lifted him to cult hero status.

In early 2019 he won the Arnold Palmer Invitational, finished third in the World Golf Championship Dell Match Play and then …

And then he found himself leading the Masters late on Sunday.

Bust

With seven holes to play in the 2019 Masters he was on top of the world.

Then he dumped his ball in the water at the 12th hole, finished fifth, and lost all form and confidence thereafter.

Between the Wentworth success and Augusta National disappointment he played 20 tournaments, finished top 10 in half of them and won four.

In the 21 events afterwards he finished better than T40th just six times and there was not one top 10.

Speaking at the Turkish Airlines Open in late 2019, in the middle of the downturn, he was honest about the problem.

"For over a year, it felt like I was pushing a boulder going upwards," he said. "But then it started going the other way and it's been hard to stop it."

Change and revival

Between late February and mid-October 2020 Molinari didn't play any tournament golf.

For the early weeks of that period no-one did, but it was different for the Italian: lockdown allowed him to reset the mind and his family also decided to move from their London home to California.

He opened 2021 with a top 10 and has added two more since.

"I feel great," he said during that first start of the year. "My energy is high and it was definitely good for the body and for the mind to take a break.

"It feels like I'm coming off a sabbatical or something like that."

Return to Sawgrass

There's a weird similarity about the Italian's current and course form ahead of Thursday's first round in Florida.

Both have a touch of feat or famine about them.

This year he has three top 10s set against a missed cut and a T50th.

Meanwhile, in nine visits to Sawgrass he's landed four top 10s and has five times failed to break the top 50 (including four missed cuts).

It means that 10/1 with Paddy Power for another top 10 looks promising.

But you could easily argue that so, too, does the 11/10 to miss the cut.

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