Francesco Molinari strengthened his grip on the Race to Dubai title despite a late stumble on the opening day of the DP World Tour Championship.
Molinari enjoyed a share of the lead after 14 holes of the first round at Jumeirah Golf Estates, only to three-putt both the 15th and 18th to card a 68 and finish two shots behind joint leaders Jordan Smith and Adrian Otaegui.
And with playing partner, Ryder Cup team-mate and Race to Dubai rival Tommy Fleetwood making an unlikely birdie on the last from off the green, the reigning European number one was just a shot behind following a battling 69.
“After the first eight holes I could have been a few better,” said Fleetwood, who has to win this week and hope Molinari finishes outside the top five to retain his title.
“I played lovely and burnt the edges on a couple of putts, so after eight it was a case of just stay patient and pick some birdies as you go along.
Fleetwood 🆚 Molinari pic.twitter.com/971pImBbf3— The European Tour (@EuropeanTour) November 15, 2018
“The back nine was completely opposite pretty much from 12 onwards. I really struggled and just made really, really good up-and-downs. You can’t really rely on that for the rest of the week, so I’ll have to do a little bit of work on whatever it was and sort it out by tomorrow.
“Sometimes those are the rounds that maybe win you golf tournaments at the end of the week and that’s kind of what I’ve been lacking a little bit throughout the year.
“You come into this week still with a chance of the Race to Dubai, one round down and we still have a chance. As long as our head’s above water for that, we’ll be happy and keep going.”
Molinari, who would be the first Italian to finish top of the money list, said: “It’s only Thursday so there are so many things that can happen. Both of us did not hit the ball our best but we managed to scramble well and close out two decent rounds.
“I did a good job of thinking shot by shot and that’s what I need to do. I don’t think there is any benefit to thinking about what-ifs. It’s too early.”
Defending champion Jon Rahm and Danny Willett are a shot off the lead on five under, with Rory McIlroy and Patrick Reed part of a 12-way tie on three under on a day when 46 of the 60-man field shot par or better.
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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.”