It has been a season of firsts for Francesco Molinari, but the Ryder Cup star is looking forward to two more before finally being able to reflect on a remarkable year.
Molinari became the first Italian player to win a major when he claimed the Open Championship at Carnoustie, which followed victory in the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth and a maiden PGA Tour title in the Quicken Loans National.
The 36-year-old then became the first European player to compile a perfect 5-0 record in the Ryder Cup victory at Le Golf National, having already teamed up with Tommy Fleetwood to become the first European pair to win all four of their matches together.
And now Molinari is primed to win the Race to Dubai for the first time before becoming the first golfer to be awarded the Collare d’oro al merito sportivo, the highest honour conferred by the Italian National Olympic Committee.
“It’s definitely going to be a special moment,” Molinari said. “I think so far it’s only been given to Olympic gold medallists or world champions. It shows how well my win at the Open was received and hopefully it’s another step towards golf being more popular in Italy.
“Since May it’s all been going very fast and very quickly and so many things happening one after the other, that I haven’t had time really to sit down and think through what’s happened in the last few months.
“Hopefully I’ll be able to do the job this week and then sit down next week and start reflecting on the season and digest everything that’s happened before, starting to prepare for next year.
“I’ve seen my family in London but I haven’t been back to Italy (since winning the Open). There are a few people that I’d like to share the Claret Jug with, probably a lot less people than the requests I get so I’ll have to manage that, but it’s going to be fun.”
Molinari leads Fleetwood by just over a million points in the Race to Dubai ahead of the season-ending DP World Tour Championship, where a top-five finish will guarantee him the title even if Fleetwood, the reigning European number one, were to win.
The ‘Moliwood’ pair will play together in Thursday’s first round and Molinari concedes their close friendship will make it impossible to attempt any sort of mind games.
“I know we’re going to sound really cheesy, but if I don’t win I’d rather see him win than anyone else,” Molinari added. “We really are good friends and to think that he comes here still with a chance to win two in a row, it’s incredible, really.
“For me 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 with him in France.
“I can’t really be mad at him, even if he wins.
“I would never have guessed I would be in this position if you had told me in April or May, but it’s been an incredible summer topped by an unbelievable Ryder Cup. Hopefully I will be able to close it out but it’s not going to be easy and I am not making any assumptions.
“It would mean a lot. I think it doesn’t matter how much you achieve in the game. Obviously you will still be wanting to achieve more, first of all. Second, it would mean a lot because it’s a season, year race, which makes it a lot harder to win.
“You can have the best week of your life and win one tournament, but to win a competition that lasts throughout the season, with the amount of talent there is right now on the European Tour, is something really hard to do but also still hard to figure out for me how I’m here in this position.”
Jon Rahm has given himself just seven and a half out of 10 for his second full season as a professional, even though it includes two tournament wins and a singles victory over Tiger Woods at the Ryder Cup.
A former world number one amateur, Rahm only joined the paid ranks in June 2016 but finished third on his first professional start and won three times around the world in 2017, including the European Tour’s season-ending DP World Tour Championship.
The 24-year-old was always going to find it tough to improve on such a stellar season, but claimed two more wins in 2018 and played a vital role in Europe’s Ryder Cup victory over the United States at Le Golf National in September.
“I’m not going to rate my season based on last year because last year was a 10 out of 10,” Rahm said ahead of his title defence at Jumeirah Golf Estates in Dubai. “I think with what I set it out to be and how hard it was to live up to expectation, I’ll give it a seven and a half out of 10.
“There’s so many things I learned about myself this year, a year for a lot of personal growth. I learned a lot of things that I would never talk about in public. That’s between me, my fiance and my family.
“But golf-wise, it’s a long year. I played four events in a row earlier in the year, and then in the middle didn’t play my best, so maybe I’ll be looking to change that.”
Despite feeling that his form suffered in the middle of the season, Rahm still comfortably qualified for his Ryder Cup debut and although he won just one point from three matches, it was a pivotal one given his opponent and early singles defeats for Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose and Tommy Fleetwood.
Rahm was two up with three to play before handing Woods a lifeline by three-putting the 16th, but shut the door in emphatic fashion with a birdie on the 17th after a 356-yard drive and approach shot to three feet.
“I was so proud of the way I conducted and the way I acted and the way I kept myself very balanced throughout the whole round,” Rahm said. “Even the putt on 16, I didn’t let it affect anything within me.
“I can’t pick one moment but I have to say the most special one is right before I stood up to the putt (on 17), walking towards it. Somebody in the crowd thought it was a great moment to yell, at the top of their lungs, ‘Do it for Seve (Ballesteros).'”
The late Ballesteros formed the most successful Ryder Cup partnership of all time with fellow Spaniard and 2012 captain Jose Maria Olazabal, and Rahm revealed it was Olazabal who gave him a vital pep talk after an opening session loss alongside Rose.
“I was very mad because I didn’t play good on the back nine,” Rahm added. “I was eating with Chema (Olazabal) and I told him ‘I can’t help to think that I let Rosey down, I let the team down and I let Thomas (Bjorn) down’.
“And he looked at me with a very Spanish angry face and he was like, “You don’t ever think that again.” Started yelling at me for about 10 minutes. He made me realise, win or lose, you’re not letting anybody down. It’s golf; you win points, you lose points.
“He started sharing stories about him and Seve until he calmed me down and then I learnt what my role was for the afternoon, which is basically act like I’m playing on the golf course, get the crowds going and make sure people were hearing all the positive chants and try to have fun with it.
“Make sure that it was like 12 of us were playing, even if only eight of them were hitting shots.”
Ryder Cup partners and best friends Francesco Molinari and Tommy Fleetwood are the only players who can win the Race to Dubai title at Jumeirah Golf Estates this weekend.
With Molinari holding a commanding 1,025,166 lead in the rankings, Fleetwood needs to win the DP World Tour Championship and the Italian to finish outside the top five to have any chance of retaining his European number one status.
Here, we look at the key talking points ahead of the tournament.
The Italian has taken his game to a different level this season, with three tournament wins, including a first major at the Open Championship in July.
To add to his stellar season, he also made history by becoming the first European to win all five matches at the Ryder Cup last month.
With formidable finishes of 13-16-4-4-17 on the Earth course since 2013, it looks highly-likely the 36-year-old will cap off the finest year of his 14-year professional career and clinch a maiden Order of Merit title.
Of course, Fleetwood is a class act but his chances of upsetting Molinari in the battle to become European number one looks slim.
Uphill task for Fleetwood
Fleetwood was in Molinari’s position last year and almost lost out to world number two Justin Rose, who held a one shot lead with seven holes to play.
Rose went on to bogey three of the next five holes and needed to eagle the 18th to beat Fleetwood, but his long-range attempt veered left and the title was Fleetwood’s by a slender 58,821 points.
Even if the 27-year-old does not win the DP World Tour Championship this weekend, he has still enjoyed a majestic season, including a successful title defence at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship and two runners-up finishes at the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship and US Open – the latter of saw him close with a record-equalling 63 to finish one shot behind winner Brooks Koepka – and eight other top-10s.
The Southport native is fast becoming the most likable player in the game and can further enhance his stardom with a solid finish in Dubai this weekend.
What next for McIlroy?
The Northern Irishman announced on Tuesday that he is set to give up his European Tour membership in 2019 to focus on PGA Tour events.
The 29-year-old, who is a three-time Race to Dubai champion, will spend most of his time in America because the Players Championship and PGA Championship have been brought forward to March and May respectively.
As it stands, McIlroy has only two European Tour events on his schedule for next season and if he sticks to this, it would eliminate him from Ryder Cup captaincy discussion in the future as per a new tour ruling.
The Northern Irishman heads into the tournament this week on the back of one tournament win, three runners-up, three top-five and three top-10 finishes this season.
Although he has no chance of winning the Order of Merit crown for the fourth title, his impeccable 3-5-11-1-5-2-1-9 record at Jumeirah Golf Estates proves he could be a serious contender on the final round come Sunday.
Westwood returns to form
The Englishman’s stunning win at the Nedbank Challenge in South Africa last week saw him return to the winners enclosure for the first time in four years.
The 45-year-old finished the event on 15 under par, three strokes clear of second place Sergio Garcia, to seal his first win since the Malaysian Open in April 2014.
It was also his first victory achieved without caddie Billy Foster on the bag, the pair having split recently after a 10-year association together.
Instead Westwood’s girlfriend fulfilled the role, having done so when the Nottingham native was beaten in a four-way play-off for the Made in Denmark tournament in September.
In fact, Westwood looks revitalised with the change and will undoubtedly add a pep in his step as he looks to finish his season on a high this weekend.
His best ever result at Jumeirah Golf Estates was a win back in 2009. Can this year’s Ryder Cup vice-captain replicate that sparkling form?