Monday, 10 December 2018
Francesco Molinari  (Getty Images)
Francesco Molinari (Getty Images)

“La semplicità è l’ultima sofisticazione (Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication)”

It is a quote attributed to the great Renaissance polymath Leonardo Da Vinci and one which, 500 years later, perhaps perfectly describes the genius of another pioneering Italian, Francesco Molinari.

Renowned for his relentless accuracy, inscrutable poker face and a determination which is as fierce as it is understated, Molinari seemed to be bubbling under the surface of true greatness for the first 14 years of his professional career. In 2018, however, arrived a Vesuvius-like explosion.

Perhaps the best way to encapsulate what he described as a “dream season” in 2018 is by attempting to pick out one particular highlight, from his myriad achievements this year, which stands above the rest.

Do you plump for his remarkable two-shot triumph at The 147th Open Championship, becoming the first Italian Major winner in the history of the game?

Or do you instead pinpoint his historic and captivating performance at The Ryder Cup, when he became the first European to win five points out of five – the final one proving the decisive point which famously sealed victory for his continent?

Before you jump to the conclusion this is a two-horse race though, remember that his Race to Dubai victory – another historic first for an Italian – is the ultimate barometer of greatness over a single season. Something which is not won or lost over the course of a week, but over a long year.

Reached a definitive conclusion yet? Thought not.

Now throw into the mix the fact he was today chosen by the Association of Golf Writers as the Hilton Golfer of the Year, and he is also set to become the first golfer to receive the Collare d'oro al merito sportive – the highest sporting merit in Italy.

Presented by the Italian National Olympic Committee, the award has historically been limited to Olympic Gold Medallists, World Cup winners and others to reach the pinnacle of popular sports in Italy – it goes a long way in proving that Molinari has officially put golf on the map in his home nation.

That’s not all, though. This year Molinari secured a maiden victory on the US PGA Tour by a staggering eight shots, and secured a maiden Rolex Series triumph at the BMW PGA Championship – when he outplayed and outlasted Rory McIlroy on the final day in front of the Wentworth crowds.

Truth be told, the 36 year old from Turin has squeezed a lifetime’s worth of career accomplishments into 12 months.

But to class his 2018 campaign as a bolt from the blue would be misguided. Molinari’s 2017 season may well have been winless and therefore somewhat unspectacular, but in hindsight it does read like a prelude to an inevitable climax.

He has for most of his career been regarded as Mr Consistent, but he took it to another level in 2017 with seven top tens on both sides of the Atlantic – the most telling of which came at the US PGA Championship, where he finished just two shots back from winner Justin Thomas.

Perhaps that August week at Quail Hollow sparked a true belief inside the Italian that he was ready to move into the pantheon of Major Champions.

That fire will surely have been stoked further in May when, in typically steely fashion, he overcame four-time Major Champion McIlroy down the stretch to win at the BMW PGA Championship.

“Nothing was really going right but nothing was seriously wrong,” his coach Denis Pugh told the Guardian newspaper of the weeks before that Wentworth win. “It was just a question of staying patient then make sure you work really well. It clicked at Wentworth and once it clicks for him he can keep printing out the same shots all day long.”

After two winless years, it was heralded by many as Molinari’s big comeback, and his biggest achievement. They did not know the half of it.

A week later, he came agonisingly close to a miraculous home victory at the Italian Open, holing a monster putt on the 18th green for a fifth birdie in his final six holes, only to lose out by a shot to future Ryder Cup team-mate Thorbjørn Olesen.

But then, on a balmy July afternoon on Scotland’s east coast, came the pièce de résistance.

Despite being in the third to last pairing at Carnoustie, the eyes of the world were fixated upon Molinari’s group. His partner, one Tiger Woods, was within touching distance of a 15th Major Championship.

In classic Molinari style, he cruised under the radar, opening with 13 consecutive pars. As a packed leaderboard struggled to build any meaningful momentum on the notoriously difficult closing stretch, Molinari birdied the 14th to move one shot clear before a perfect approach to the 18th left him with a six-foot putt for birdie.

With the most important putt of his career, he displayed archetypal poise for a closing birdie and a two-stroke victory.

“Clearly, in my group, the attention wasn't really on me, let's put it that way,” he said in characteristically humble fashion as he spoke to the press afterwards, Claret Jug in hand. “If someone was expecting a charge, probably they weren't expecting it from me, but it's been the same the whole of my career.”

A month later, he removed another proverbial monkey from his back in swashbuckling style as he claimed his first victory on the US PGA Tour, at the Quicken Loans National.

Another strong Major showing at the US PGA Championship followed in August, with a top ten finish at Bellerive Country Club, further strengthening his stranglehold on the top spot in the Race to Dubai and ensuring he entered The 2018 Ryder Cup as the lynchpin of an incredibly strong European team.

Despite a six-year absence from golf’s greatest team event, and arguably more attention upon him than ever before, Molinari took everything in his stride at Le Golf National. And then some.

The reigning Open Champion, alongside his close friend Tommy Fleetwood, set the tone early on as they claimed the only point in a 3-1 defeat for Europe in the opening session, and they continued to set the tournament alight with three more wins in what became the most successful European partnership ever at a single Ryder Cup.

Drawn in the fourth to last match for the Sunday Singles, against Phil Mickelson, there was an almost poetic fatefulness to Molinari’s final act in Paris – clinching the point which took Europe to 14.5 thereby rubber-stamping victory for Thomas Bjørn’s charges.

The following day, the French capital’s Gare Du Nord train station came to a standstill upon Molinari’s arrival as the hero of the hour received a standing ovation – a moment, in a season of unforgettable moments, which he admitted brought him to tears.

“It’s hard to say but I think probably, from my point of view, The Ryder Cup has been even bigger than The Open,” Molinari later explained in an interview. “You would never expect that in a train station. That probably shows you; that was one thing that would never happen after The Open - The Ryder Cup is so special. The public bought into that and loved it.”

Although Molinari entered the season-ending DP World Tour Championship, Dubai, still in danger of being overthrown at the summit of the Race to Dubai Rankings presented by Rolex by Fleetwood, he was perfectly philosophical about his fate.

“I know we said this and we're going to sound really cheesy,” he said. “But if I don't win, I'd rather see him (Fleetwood) win than anyone else. We really are good friends and he's had an amazing season.

“What I can say for me is that it's been a great season, and however it goes this week, I'm still going to have lots of great memories from all of what I've done this year, and probably the best memory is what we've done together in France.”

More history beckoned for Molinari and a fitting end to a dominant season saw him become the first Italian to be crowned European Tour Number One.

“It means a lot,” he said afterwards. “You look at the players who have won The Race to Dubai or the Order of Merit before, and obviously it's only really the top players that have done it.

“I never thought something like this would happen to me to be honest, and now it's going to be a challenge to reset before next year and work as hard as I did the past winter and try to reproduce the same golf.”

Race to Dubai Champion, Open Champion, Ryder Cup hero, BMW PGA Champion, and now Hilton Golfer of the Year.

For the man who makes an art form out of simplicity, consistency and humility, further greatness surely awaits.

Grazie, Francesco, per i ricordi. Thank you for the memories.

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