By Dave Shedloski
It was quite inspiring and entertaining seeing that Tiger Woods swinging fist pump on the 18th green Sunday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Except the flying right-hand roundhouse belonged to Francesco Molinari, who executed a near-perfect imitation of Woods that signified a knockout of the beleaguered field at Bay Hill Club and Lodge.
Once again, the Palmer charge proved indisputably effective, even when others try it. With a bogey-free, eight-under-par 64, capped by a monster birdie at the 72nd hole that prompted the burst of emotion from the usually stoic Italian, Molinari overcame a five-stroke deficit to Matthew Fitzpatrick to win by two for his third PGA Tour title.
Last year it was Rory McIlroy who stormed home with a 64 to cap a huge rally.
Embarking on his final round nearly two hours before the final twosome of Fitzpatrick and McIlroy, Molinari posted 12-under 276 and watched as all would-be contenders tried in vain to catch him on the sunbaked Championship Course. Fitzpatrick, the former U.S. Amateur champion from England, could only muster 71 to claim second place with a 10-under 278.
“Obviously, super happy about the way I did it today … and it’s nice to do it in those circumstances at Arnie’s place,” said Molinari, who last year pilfered the Quicken Loans National with a closing 62, so clearly, the man has the right kind of mean streak in him. He is one of only four men in the last three years to shoot 64 or lower in the final round four times on the PGA Tour, joining Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka and Gary Woodland.
“I know that I can shoot low scores pretty much on every golf course, yeah,” he said. “I’m not scared to say that, or I’m not shy of confidence in that way.”
Since he beat McIlroy head-to-head at the European Tour’s BMW PGA Championship in late May, Molinari has added three more victories, including claiming the Claret Jug at Carnoustie for his first major title. Prior to his breakout 2018 season, Molinari had won four times worldwide, two of which came in his home country at the Italian Open. His three PGA Tour titles have been collected in the last ninth months. Only Bryson DeChambeau has won as many in that span.
And let’s not forget Molinari’s 5-0 performance last September at the Ryder Cup in France, the first European player to post a perfect record.
Clearly, at age 36, Molinari is a different golfer, mostly upstairs, he said, where his mind is taking him to a performance level his talent alone wasn’t capable of achieving.
“Yeah, it’s hard to point a finger at one thing. Its obvious confidence has to do with a lot of it,” Molinari said. “When I won last year, playing with Rory in the last few groups, it wasn’t easy at all. So, from there I started building my confidence and just saying I could get it done.”
Now seventh in the world, Molinari might not be lacking confidence, but he neither is he brimming with bravado. He still is coming to grips with his eruption of success. “I’m not scared about going out on the golf course playing against anyone, but it’s just really hard for me to picture myself where I am at the moment,” he admitted.
Molinari wasn’t flawless on Sunday, but he was darn close. Among the highlights was a flop shot from left of the eighth green from 44 feet that found the cup for birdie, and that seeing-eye slicing putt on the home hole of nearly the same distance—43 feet, 9 inches, according to Shotlink. Add the hole-in-one at the par-3 seventh he tallied in the first round, and you have the makings of a victory flush with hero shots.
Which is often what it takes these days. J.B. Holmes’ triumph last month at the Genesis Open similarly was fueled by an ace in an earlier round.
As for McIlroy, the defending champion, it’s difficult to fathom that he will take any “little personal wins”—his words from earlier in the week—out of yet another high finish that doesn’t include hoisting a trophy. Playing in the final group on a Sunday for the ninth time in 15 months, the world’s sixth-ranked player once again couldn’t find the gear to get his nose over the finish line ahead of everyone else.
Beginning the day just one behind Fitzpatrick, McIlroy submitted a mundane even-par 72 to join a bunch of no-names (winking as we write this), including last week’s Honda Classic winner Keith Mitchell, at eight-under 280, tied for sixth. After four top-fives to begin the year, McIlroy just missed another. As if it matters. The Ulsterman’s form is clearly better than decent, but we’d hazard a guess that he’s uninterested in leading the tour in moral victories.
Then again, asked about that very thing —if he was over the moral victories—McIlroy replied, “No, not at all.”
“I’m playing well. I would much rather be putting myself in position to have a chance to win,” he added. “I’m playing good golf, it doesn’t matter if I’m playing that golf on Thursday, Friday, Saturday … yeah, my Sundays haven’t been what I would have liked, but … good golf is good golf, I keep saying that, at the end of the day.”
At the end of the day, good golf only goes so far. Molinari is playing great golf, and that’s why he is only the sixth player to win each of the last two years on the PGA Tour.
And at the end of his day, Molinari didn’t need the putt at the last for the victory, but that pure stroke will be the most memorable of this edition of Palmer’s tournament.
“It’s a pretty iconic putt,” Molinari said, knowing how Woods, the eight-time winner here, has performed some memorable theatrics on Bay Hill’s signature hole. “I’m pretty sure I’m the first guy to make it with the flag in though, so that’s the real difference. Arnie was such a global icon, and this tournament was one that we watched, my brother and myself, at home many times—watching Tiger making that putt on 18. It’s still a bit unreal to think that I’ve done kind of the same today.”
So, the week began with Tiger Woods withdrawing with a neck injury. It ended with Molinari doing a pretty good impersonation of the guy and stepping on everyone’s throats. That and the overall charge he was celebrating on the last green would have made the late tournament host smile.