When Francesco “Chicco” Molinari briefly raised his hands in the air and gazed momentarily up at the cheering Shanghai crowds in the grandstand at Sheshan last year, you would have had little clue from his body language that he had just gone eyeball to eyeball with the hottest player on the planet and won.
Even now, when he looks back at the best performance, the biggest victory, the most spectacular year of his career and a season unparalleled in the history of Italian golf, his voice – a deep baritone – rumbles along at exactly the same steady, careful, unflustered pace.
“It was very, very good. It was probably the best golf I’ve played. When you’re playing against the number one in the world it doesn’t get any tougher than that, especially the way he was playing," the 28-year-old explains, his tone showing no hint of the kind of excitement of someone describing the day and the week where he delivered a performance that he had strived for most of his life. "It was just great for my confidence and my self-belief to see that I could compete against the best in the world.”
There’s no hint of exhilaration when he considers the culmination of a remarkable 12 months in his life. It started when he won the Omega Mission Hills World Cup for Italy with his older brother Edoardo in Shenzhen and continued when he twice played alongside Edoardo in the final round as the latter won his first European Tour events in Scotland. If that wasn’t enough the brothers, who were born a little under two years apart, paired up again to help Europe win the Ryder Cup and, circling the globe, Francesco returned to China to claim the biggest prize of his career taking his season earnings to just under €3 million.
The vanquished in this case is far more effusive than the victor.
“Last year’s event was great! Myself and Francesco ran away from the field! We played a different golf course that week!” exclaims Westwood, who was starting his first of what would be 22 weeks at number one.
“It was pretty much flawless golf,” Molinari muses modestly.
As the quiet champion, Molinari is perhaps destined to be filed in the same place that the 2006 Shanghai winner Yang Yong-Eun occupied until he became Asia’s first male major champion and his 2009 PGA Championship victory cast his previous achievements in a new light. Both are symbolic of the arrival of relatively new golfing nations to the sport’s top table and, at the times of their win, neither golfer had the same superstar status as some of the other names on the HSBC Champions roll of honour like Phil Mickelson (2007 and 2009) or Sergio Garcia (2008).
They have one other thing in common: to win both produced a performance so perfect that they remain a regular reference point.
“I try to revive the feeling I had that week. I played with such poise. It was my perfect tournament,” Yang said the week before he enshrined himself as a legend of Asian golf.
Molinari’s emotions are exactly the same.
“Definitely! What is left for me from that week are the feelings that I had on the golf course; being competitive, being really in the moment and just the attitude I had on the golf course, rather than the game itself,” he says.
It’s hard enough to believe Francesco would need such a reference point, so unchanging is his demeanour: even people close to his family say that while brother Edoardo rides a more typically Italian emotional rollercoaster, Francesco never deviates.
What’s almost impossible to believe is his claim that, as a child, learning the game in Turin, his dentist-father frequently banned him for ‘throwing the toys out of the pram’.
“I used to throw clubs as a kid and swear and if my Dad saw me from other holes throwing clubs he wouldn’t let me play for a couple of weeks. That was the punishment for not behaving on the golf course,” Francesco explains.
“I think I was lucky to learn the lesson as a kid. When you turn professional you try really hard think about what you’re doing and not about what happened or what is going to happen. I think that’s what I did really well in Shanghai.”
Patience has proved a virtue in other ways too. At the insistence of their parents, both Edoardo and Francesco had to complete degrees at the University of Torino (Edoardo studying Engineering and Francesco choosing Business) before starting their golf careers.
Although the younger Molinari initially singles out improving year-on-year rather than his victories, there have been plenty of highlights in his professional life.
“The World Cup and the Ryder Cup were two of the biggest moments in my career. The win in Shenzhen was great, playing against Rory [McIlroy] and G-Mac [Graeme McDowell] in the last round and winning by one shot at the 18th is always something special. Being the first World Cup success for Italy alongside my brother Edoardo was just something really unbelievable.
“The Ryder Cup is an unbelievable experience; different from any other emotion you can feel on the golf course. The first morning we were not even playing and when we went to the tee they started chanting “There’s only two Molinaris” and it was just a lot of fun. I thought it was one of the best chants of the week. It’s a lot of tension and a lot of pressure but at the same time it’s also a lot of fun because you don’t play for money, you don’t play for world ranking points … you just play for winning and the team.”
As for the steady improvement, Molinari admits that the law of diminishing returns applies as you get into the jet set of tour society. This year he has strived for a little more distance and in the process lost some of the pinpoint accuracy.
That’s not the only change. This year Molinari has played fewer events to make room for the majors and other WGC tournaments that his HSBC Champions win has allowed him to add to the cream of the European Tour’s events. The results haven’t been bad – top 10s in the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship, Volvo World Match Play Championship and the BMW Italian Open and, the highlight, a third place finish at the WGC-Cadillac Championship – but they haven’t been as consistent as previous seasons.
The other big adjustment has been the arrival of his first child, a son Tommaso, who was born in February.
“Life changes after a baby. You have to adapt to the new condition of being a parent, but it’s fun. As soon as he smiles you forget about anything that happened – good or bad – on the golf course. It gives you a different perspective,” Molinari reveals.
So, Molinari returns to the HSBC Champions not quite on the crest of the wave that swept him to the biggest win of his career, but looking forward to defending his title on what he describes as “a phenomenal” 18 holes of golf.
“It’s going to be different. We won the World Cup in China and now I’ve won in Shanghai; obviously I really like playing in China! It’s going to be fun to be back there another year. The HSBC Champions was just the climax of a fantastic year for me. I’m really looking forward to going back there this year and try and do the same,” he says.
How he’ll be received will be interesting. Perhaps like “YE” Yang Yong-Eun it will only be a major championship that will make a nation relatively new to the sport re-evaluate the near-perfection he displayed last year.
If Francesco Molinari doesn’t get the recognition from the golfing public, the player he vanquished believes the Italian certainly has got it from his peers; the people that matter most.
“I think he did by all the players – that’s who you want recognition from,” Westwood says. “He played very nicely.”
It’s a comment that sums up Francesco Molinari perfectly; simply because it is so understated.
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