AUGUSTA, Ga. — If golf is a problem, Francesco Molinari seems to be solving it.
Trends come and go in every sport. Technology evolves. Players get bigger. In some cases, they get smaller. In golf, drives get longer. Putters look weird. Tiger Woods pulls his mock turtlenecks out of mothballs. But fundamentally, most golfers remain within a set of career parameters. They’re wizards with their irons, beasts with their drivers, or maybe artists with their putters.
And then there’s Molinari, who shares the top of the Masters leaderboard at the tournament’s midpoint and can already claim one major championship victory in the past year. But the 2018 British Open champion was hardly among golf’s elite this time last year. He’d yet to win a tournament on the PGA Tour but was slowly climbing the FedEx Cup rankings—from No. 111 in 2016 to No. 37 in ’17 and No. 17 a year ago. And it’s not that he’s coming into his prime; the 5’8” Italian is 36 years old, already a 15-year pro. No, Molinari reached a turning point, a sort of mid-career crisis, and over the past five year he’s wholly reinvented his game to become one of the golf's most consistent stars.
The seed for change was planted in 2014 at Royal Liverpool, where Molinari was paired with Dustin Johnson and Rory McIlroy on Saturday at the British Open. At the start of the day, he was tied for third place at 6-under par. Johnson was in second, at 8-under, and McIlroy had a commanding lead at -12. The American and Irishman were known for their strong play off the tee, and Molinari felt from the start he’d be overshadowed. “I saw that I didn't stand a chance, really,” he recalled Friday afternoon. “I didn't play my best golf, but even if I had, there wasn't much I could do to compete against them.”
But instead of relegating himself to second-tier status after playing his way out of contention that Saturday, Molinari hit the gym. He dedicated himself to hours on the driving range and worked to adjust his technique. He knew he’d never average 310 yards on his drives—at the Masters thus far, he’s put up a solid 298.7, up from his average this year of 290.3—but he thought he could do enough to remain competitive, to avoid conceding a stroke before he even reached the green. That was the case Friday, when he finished without a single bogey and proved that Brooks Koepka’s driving average of 311.4 yards Thursday wasn’t the only way to command Augusta.
But power was only the start of Molinari’s transformation. Last year at the Masters, the Italian recalls meeting with his putting coach, Phil Kenyon, after the tournament’s first round. He’d shot a 72, and he recalls Kenyon telling him how many shots he lost on the greens—too many, he says, something like 4.5. Molinari would go on to finish the tournament in a tie for 20th, and he’d keep working with Kenyon, whom he’d hired only a month earlier to remake his short game.
On Friday, asked exactly how that process had gone, what specifically had been tweaked, the usually-stoic Molinari offered a rare smile. “Yeah,” he said, “I've changed pretty much everything that you can think of.” He went on to recite a laundry list of alterations: They modified his setup from upright to more of a crouch. His putting stroke path used to be in-to-out; now, he describes it as neutral. He bought a new putter—with a different shape. That putter has a dot for alignment, rather than a line. To sum up the process: “Pretty much I could have started putting left‑handed,” he explained, “[and] it would have been a similar process.”
“I just feel better,” he added. “I think that feeds into the long game, as well, knowing that I can hit the irons without being completely terrified of missing a green in the wrong spot.”
Molinari seems to have bent his game to his will, and over the past nine months, he’s been the most consistently competitive golfer in the sport. Since last July 1, he’s missed just one cut, at the Northern Trust, and won three times: at the Quicken Loans National, the British Open and the Arnold Palmer Invitational last month.
To open play Thursday, Molinari posted a quiet 70. He was even par through 11 holes before birdies on Nos. 15 and 18. Four strokes separated him from the leaders after the first round, and on Friday, he climbed the leaderboard just as unobtrusively. By the time he finished nine holes, he was 3-under for the day, rising through the star-studded leaderboard to -7. He held the lead outright when he signed his scorecard, though within the hour, he’d share it with Jason Day, Adam Scott and Koepka (and Louis Oosthuizen would join them later). Still, Molinari has been the most consistent of the bunch thus far, having put up just one bogey in 36 holes of play.
In seven prior Masters, Molinari has never finished better than in a tie for 19th, and his 67 Friday was the best round he’s ever played at Augusta. (His average round at the Masters before 2019 was more than a stroke over par, his low a 69.) But thanks to what the golfer called “pragmatic improvement,” the past seems to have little bearing this year on a course where experience so often begets success.
Molinari told reporters that Monday was the first day he’d ever felt comfortable at Augusta. It was his first round there with his remade game flowing, and he says that though he didn’t expect these results—and who could?—he thought he’d play well this week.
That admission was one of the only moments Friday when Molinari’s words reflected the numbers on his scorecard. Though no golfer will revel in a 36-hole lead, at times Molinari seemed downright dour. He told the story of that round with McIlroy and Johnson for the second time (at least) this week. He recounted the conference with Kenyon. He re-told the story of caddying for his brother, Edoardo, here in 2006, describing the experience as “a bit of a nightmare.” It was doom and gloom before the actual gloom rolled into Augusta: an uphill trudge with a bag on his back, bad putts, worse drives.
Maybe reliving those moments keeps Molinari sane. Maybe it’s catharsis. Maybe it’s still a little strange to have finished in the top 10 of the past two majors and be tied for the lead of another. Regardless, the mindset is working—almost as well as his retooled game.