Not so suddenly, Molinari a major factor at Masters

Francesco Molinari with his caddie, Pello Iguaran, discuss his tee shot on four during the second round of the Masters Tournament Friday, April 12, 2019, at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta. Jason Getz / Special to the AJC

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Francesco Molinari with his caddie, Pello Iguaran, discuss his tee shot on four during the second round of the Masters Tournament Friday, April 12, 2019, at Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta. Jason Getz / Special to the AJC

Francesco Molinari made himself relevant to yet another major golf championship on Friday and for those who may believe the 35-year-old Italian lucked into something good in the back nine of his career should reassess.

The guy has been shredding it for almost two years now and has to be considered a Sunday staple whenever the world convenes for one of these big flings.

“There’s obviously loads of great players in golf right now and, you know, I think I’m getting the attention that I deserve,” Molinari said after shooting a 67 that brought him from six shots off the pace to a share of mid-way Masters lead at 7-under par. “It's not something that I seek or that I want desperately.”

But it is something he has earned. Over his last five majors, Molinari has finished in the top six three times, including his victory in last summer’s British Open, the first major ever won by an Italian. Compare that to his performance in his previous 31 majors - two top-10 finishes and seven missed cuts - and Friday’s round fits his new profile as the artist at the height of his craft.

“Didn't really get in trouble at any point,” he said. “Just played solid. ... Obviously, still a long way to go so let’s see what we'll be able to do on the weekend.”

His rush to the front actually began on the 15th hole on Thursday, where he played last four holes in 2 under. Adding five more birdies through the 15th on Friday and he ran through an 18-hole stretch at 7 under. The 67 marks his lowest Masters round in 26 tries. His only previous score in the 60s was a 69 seven years ago and his growing comfort with Augusta National is obvious.

“I just feel better,” he said. “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 can identify the day when he plotted a new career course. In 2014, he had played well enough in the British Open at Royal Liverpool to be paired with Dustin Johnson and eventual champion Rory McIlroy for Saturday's round. And he found they were playing an entirely different game.

“I saw that I didn't stand a chance, really,” said Molinari, who would finish six shots back. “I didn't play my best golf but even if I had, there wasn't much I could do to compete against them.”

So at 31, he started all over. Practice routines, coaches, work in the gym, work on the range, techniques all changed. His short game was a particular target and his putting went through alterations in stance, stroke path, putter, even putter shape.

“Pretty much I could have started out putting left-handed, it would have been a similar process,” he said.

He felt things falling into place at the 2017 PGA Championship, where he finished runner-up to Justin Thomas. Then last year, he powered his way to the top, winning his first PGA Tour event, the Quicken National, by eight shots, the first Italian to win on the Tour since Toney Penna won the old Atlanta Open in 1947.

By the end of the year, he had won the British Open, cracked the top-10 World Rankings and went 5-0 in Europe's 17 1/2-10 1/2 win the Ryder Cup, the best performance by a European player since the scoring system was revamped in 1979. He just won the Arnold Palmer Invitational five weeks ago and has already banked $2.6 million in just six events.

“It’s nice to see the work has paid off,” he said, “but I think that there’s still more in the tank and there’s still more to improve.”

At 7-under, he is in unfamiliar territory at Augusta, where his best fight with par was his 2-under last year. In 2017, he played 5-over; the two years before, 11-over both times. But that was then.

“I know I have to keep doing what I do,” Molinari said. “What I've learned from the last 12 months is that that’s all I can control and that’s all I can do when I’m out there: keep doing what I’m doing and keep making every process that I have even tighter and better. Just do that and see if anyone can beat me on the course."”