Flying out of Jacksonville airport after missing the cut at the Players Championship in May, Francesco Molinari would never have believed what would unfold next in his never-ending season.
Ranked number 33 in the world, the Italian looked low on confidence and lacking in direction and even a little bit of hope.
Fast forward six months and the balmy heat of Dubai, the 37-year-old’s name is now pursed on everyone’s lips again after becoming the first Italian to lift the Race to Dubai title after a glittering second half of the season.
Going into the DP World Tour Championship this weekend, his best friend Tommy Fleetwood was the only other player who could have taken the Order of Merit crown – he needed to win the tournament with Molinari finishing outside the top-five.
Fleetwood, however, could only finish on 10 under in a tie for 16th alongside Xander Schauffele, with Molinari four shots back in a tie for 26th.
Although Molinari may have been disappointed with his performance, he still caps off his finest ever season in 14 years as a professional golfer. There were some great times through the years between successful Ryder Cup teams and various European Tour wins. But none more so than the consistency and composure he showed to clinch a first major at the Open Championship in July and then follow it up nine weeks later to become the first European to win all five matches at the Ryder Cup.
Two weeks after missing the cut at the Players Championship, the Turin native closed with a stunning 69 to claim a two-shot victory over Rory McIlroy in the BMW PGA Championship, the European Tour’s flagship event at Wentworth.
It was at the Surrey course where signs of his class began to shine, dropping only two shots throughout the weekend – one of them on the first hole of the first round – and did not score a bogey over his final 44 holes.
The following week he headed for the Italian Open in Brescia, where he posted three successive five-under par 66s before improving again on the final round to finish on 21 under. But, it was only enough for second place behind Denmark’s Thorbjorn Olesen, who sealed victory by one shot.
Then after a solid 24th place finish at the US Open, Molinari decided to take the third week of June off and link up with coaching guru Phil Kenyon to iron out some minor issues with his putting. The short break from competition worked wonders and he returned to action the following weekend with a scintillating first PGA Tour win at the Quicken Loans National in Maryland.
Rounds of 67, 65, 65 and 62 saw the London resident finish at 21 under par, a convincing eight shots clear of second place Ryan Armour and 10 ahead of Tiger Woods. A record performance.
Signs of his hard work off the course were beginning to shine in Maryland, with his putting on song and parts of his mental game looking flawless. In past years when things might not have been going his way, he’d drop the head and crumble under the intense pressure. However, with performance coach Dave Alred in his corner, he has been able to avoid letting outside influences affect him and back his abilities in being a world class player.
A tie for second finish at the John Deere Classic in Illinois provided the perfect platform as Molinari arrived for the final major of the year in Carnoustie in red-hot form. Backed by strong displays Stateside, he produced an assured performance to become the first Italian to win a major title.
His stellar eight-under total of 276 was enough to finish two shots ahead of Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy. And to further underline his putting prowess and world class ability he played the final 37 holes on the toughest links course in golf without a bogey.
The win capped off his best stretch of golf in his career, with three wins, two runners-up and a major triumph moving him to number six in the world. It also highlighted his status as one of the biggest names in the game.
A short break awaits golf’s elite before the new European Tour season gets underway again next week in Hong Kong, but the new Race to Dubai champion must now build on his 2018 form in a bid to squeeze even more out of his vast talents.
If he can carry himself the same way he has on and off the course this year, there is no doubt that he can win more majors and PGA Tour competitions, and even inspire Europe to further glory at Whistling Straits in 2020.
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Italy’s Francesco Molinari was almost lost for words after capping an incredible season by winning the European Tour’s Race to Dubai.
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 make history as the first European pair to win all four of their matches together.
And Molinari’s status as European number one was officially confirmed at the DP World Tour Championship as soon as Tommy Fleetwood was unable to claim the victory he required to overhaul his good friend.
“Incredible, incredible,” said Molinari, who embraced Fleetwood on the clubhouse steps once the result was confirmed. “You know, now I’m going to have time to sit down and relax and really think back about the last few months.
“I’m really struggling for words. It’s more than I ever dreamed of achieving.
I’ve seen guys that I think are better players than me not winning majors and not winning Order of Merits or Race to Dubai. To achieve those things, you know, in one single season, is just incredible.”
Molinari is set to be the first golfer to be awarded the Collare d’oro al merito sportivo, the highest honour conferred by the Italian National Olympic Committee, after which he will face the tough task of planning how to improve next season.
“I don’t know who is more tired between Tommy and I,” he added. “We both looked exhausted on the course. It is a long season and we play a lot of tournaments.
“The Ryder Cup was an amazing week, but it does take a big toll and now it’s time to relax and recover and try to get stronger for next year. To be honest I don’t know how to face next season yet. It’s going to be nearly impossible to repeat or to beat that, but after a break I need to start working hard and get ready for another good season.
“It’s a new challenge. We’ve been doing very well this year when it comes to the challenges. I had never won a Ryder Cup match and I won five out of five.
“Carnoustie was really not my favourite place, to say the least, before this year, and to go there and win it’s incredible and it’s probably impossible to process still all of that.”
The season-ending DP World Tour Championship is set for an enthralling final round with Danny Willett and Patrick Reed tied for the lead on 14-under par on a day of low scoring at Jumeirah Golf Estates.
Willett, who will be leading from the front after 54 holes for the first time since the 2017 Maybank Championship, posted his third successive round of five-under par 65 as he searches for his first title since the 2016 Masters Tournament.
“My main goal this year was not really a golfing goal, but body-wise,” Willett said after a third round of 68. “If I could finish the season healthier and fitter than I started the season, I would be somewhere near and that’s exactly what we’ve done.
“This is the sixth out of seven weeks playing golf. We’ve travelled all around the world trying to play a good bit, and it’s nice that my body feels as good now as it ever has, really.”
“I’m not going to lie it would be an amazing thing to win, but regardless of what happens, just looking more in the long-term of my career, really, is pretty good.”
Reed, who has also claimed the iconic Green Jacket at Augusta National earlier this year, only managed to pick up one shot on the front nine but the American reeled off four birdies in six holes on the back nine to grab a slice of the lead.
“It means a lot to be in with a shout,” said Reed. “Just to be in the situation to be able to come over here and play, with the limited schedule that I play over here on The European Tour, and to have a chance to go out and finish the year off right and win a golf tournament, give myself a little early Christmas gift, a trophy, would be amazing.”
Meanwhile, Lee Westwood’s hunt for back-to-back European Tour titles and a second DP World Tour Championship crown is well and truly on after a spellbinding seven under par 65 left the Englishman in a tie for fourth place, just two shots off the lead.
“I played great, I got off to a quick start, which I wanted to do,” said the 45 year old. “I’m just pleased I shot 65 and got myself in there and closer to the leaders, with the conditions as they are and if the wind stays up, then they may not get too far away from me. It’s a big improvement today and gives me a chance tomorrow.”
Fellow Englishman Matt Wallace and South Africa’s Dean Burmester join the 24-time European Tour winner in fourth place after carding 71 and 68 respectively.