Defending champion Francesco Molinari hopes to harness some of the energy of a Northern Irish crowd celebrating the return of the Open after 68 years in much the same way he did at the Ryder Cup.
The Italian was the standout player at Le Golf National last September, triumphant in all five of his matches and securing the point which won back the trophy.
One of the quietest, most unassuming players on tour, Molinari admits playing to the gallery is something which is alien to him but he hopes being the last winner of the Claret Jug and a Ryder Cup hero will provide a reciprocal benefit when he arrives at Royal Portrush next week.
“It is going to be an historic Open Championship for many reasons, which is even more reason for me to go there and just try to enjoy the experience and use the energy of the crowd for the week,” he said.
“You just try to get a feel for the people and that is something I did well at the Ryder Cup – it is not something which is natural to me, recognising how much they appreciate my game.”
Conversely, however, Molinari is playing down the defence of his Claret Jug.
Wary of the amount of additional time is required from returning champion means the Italian has deliberately reduced his schedule in the weeks running up to the event.
Asked about the change, which has not seen him play since the Travelers Championship at the end of June Molinari said: “Recognising that going into a tournament as a defending champion is different and especially a major.
“I’m not going to play as much as I did last year, save as much energy as possible for the week.
“I think it is trying to keep the expectations down – it is a different experience to be there as defending champion, hopefully that is not the only time in my career when that happens.”
Molinari could have arrived in Portrush as a two-time major winner had things gone better for him at Augusta where he led the Masters going into the final day and was two clear with seven holes remaining only to collapse and hand victory to Tiger Woods.
It was a chastening experience for the likeable Italian, who found the water twice on the back nine.
“It was a very different situation when you are leading. I fought well on the front nine without having my A-game, then unfortunately just a couple of mistakes on the back nine,” he added.
“It was the first time really I was leading a major on the Sunday.
“During the last round at Carnoustie (when he won the Open) Tiger made a run on the front nine, then made a couple of mistakes.
“I made a birdie on 14 and it was so late in the tournament you don’t have time to think about it, it was just four holes to go.”
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Spain’s Jon Rahm is excited about his Open Championship prospects after overturning a five-shot deficit with a brilliant 62 to claim his second Dubai Duty Free Irish Open title in three years.
Rahm fired an eagle, eight birdies and two bogeys at Lahinch to finish 16 under par, two shots clear of England’s Andy Sullivan and Bernd Wiesberger, with overnight leader Robert Rock, Eddie Pepperell and Rafa Cabrera Bello a stroke further back.
Wiesberger, Rock and Paul Waring will join Rahm in the field for the year’s final major at Royal Portrush after securing the three qualifying places on offer, Waring making a crucial birdie on the 18th to finish joint seventh and edge out former world number one Martin Kaymer.
Rahm, who stayed in Portrush when he won the 2017 Irish Open at nearby Portstewart, said: “I’m going to go to Portrush with a lot of good memories and good vibes. I’m going to have huge support from the crowd and hopefully I can keep my good golf going into Northern Ireland.
“I can’t wait to go to Portrush and visit the Harbour Bistro like I did every single night like I was there. I’m sure I’ll see a lot of people again and hopefully enjoy the week and play the best Open I’ve played so far.
“I’m going into the Open Championship with a lot of confidence. It’s the only major I haven’t had a good performance at and I want to.”
Cabrera Bello began the day a shot behind Rock but surged into a three-shot lead with three birdies in the first five holes, only to start the back nine with four bogeys in six holes as Rahm piled on the pressure.
After covering the front nine in 31, Rahm birdied the 10th and holed from 25 feet for an eagle on the 12th, before recovering from a bogey on the next with birdies on the 14th, 15th and 17th.
“I keep saying I love this tournament, I love the country, I love the people,” added Rahm, who played the last 27 holes in 14 under after a back nine of 30 in his 64 on Saturday. “I feel like I’m at home every time I come here.
“I knew I had to do something amazing today to have a chance and that eagle on 12 got me going. The difficult part was after 13. It would have been really easy to get derailed and lose focus, but luckily I had a long walk from 13 to 14 and the crowd was just being tremendous.
“When I got to the tee, I was right back in it. I hit a good tee shot, a great second shot and when I got to the green, before I even see where the ball is at, I see I’m tied for the lead. That was a huge confidence boost.
“My target was 15 under and I never thought I’d get to 16 under without a birdie on the last, but I’m definitely thrilled with the back nine.
“I think Seve (Ballesteros) is the only Spanish player to have won this event more than once so it’s very special to add my name to the trophy again.”
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Italy’s Andrea Pavan claimed his second European Tour title by beating England’s Matt Fitzpatrick in a play-off in the BMW International Open.
Pavan birdied the second extra hole after both players had finished tied on 15 under par, two shots ahead of a seven-strong group including overnight leader Jordan Smith and defending champion Matt Wallace.
Fitzpatrick enjoyed a massive stroke of luck on the first play-off hole when his approach from 285 yards somehow plugged on a downslope just inches from a water hazard, but a poor pitch meant he could only match Pavan’s par.
The players returned to the par-five 18th and, after Pavan hit a superb third shot from the rough to tap-in range, Fitzpatrick mishit his bunker shot and could not hole a lengthy birdie attempt.
Pavan had set the clubhouse target after a flawless closing 66 and looked on as Fitzpatrick had an eagle putt to win on the 72nd hole, only to leave it short.
Wallace also needed to birdie the last to match Pavan’s total but found the water twice and did well to salvage a bogey six.
“It’s amazing to be honest,” Pavan told Sky Sports. “I thought I had a chance starting the day. I was playing very well coming into the week and just hit a few bad drives, it’s always a little bit my Achilles heel.
“This hole (18th) is not the best for me without driver but I managed to make birdie and it’s been amazing.
“I was in a play-off in qualifying for the US Open with five guys for one spot and I three-putted the first and then you go home with nothing.
“Here at least the worst you finish is second but it’s very satisfying to get the win, it’s so hard, so difficult.”
Fitzpatrick admitted he is enduring a difficult season and was frustrated not to get over the line in Munich.
“It’s disappointing. (I have) been playing well. Obviously that showed coming here, and getting into a playoff, which has been great,” Fitzpatrick told the European Tour.
“It’s a good week overall, but yeah, disappointed not to top it off. Had a bit of a look the first playoff hole, but yeah, it’s just been a tough season so far, really. Not holing the putts. Missed a chance on 16 there – didn’t hole it.”
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