Open champion Francesco Molinari happy to fly under the radar

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Open champion Francesco Molinari is happy to arrive at Royal Portrush under the radar as he begins the defence of his title.

The Italian is the most unassuming winner since Zach Johnson in 2015 and despite his Ryder Cup heroics probably has the lowest public profile since Louis Oosthuizen nine years ago.

However, rather unlike Brooks Koepka, who was outspoken about the lack of respect he was given just before winning his fourth major in May, Molinari is happier not being in the headlines.

“Maybe part of it is my personality, not really caring too much about being in the spotlight,” said the 36-year-old, who has cemented his place in the world’s top 10 since his maiden major victory at Carnoustie.

“Part of it is being Italian. An American or British player is always going to naturally get more attention.

“I don’t mind that, it can only be good for myself as there is a little less pressure from the outside. I don’t mind it at all.

“I enjoy the support of the crowds and at something like the Ryder Cup last year wouldn’t have been the same without the involvement of the crowd.

“Walking through the station in Paris (the day after winning back the trophy) that stays with you forever and you never forget.

“I enjoy my time on the range and the course, preparing, and one of the challenges for me has been to balance the more time doing other stuff as it is less time preparing or with your family.

“Family comes first and then I feel like I need to work hard to perform at a high level.

“It is never going to be you get all the results and no attention, it is about finding the right balance but for me it is about less attention than the other guys.”

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.

“In some ways (having already won a major) might have made the disappointment a little bit bigger: at that time I wasn’t able to close it out,” he said.

“But to be honest I don’t think it would’ve changed a lot. In any sport it is never easy to take a loss like that.

“But you try to analyse what happened and try to move on and ideally put yourself in that position again as soon as possible to prove you can do better than you did that time.”

Molinari’s only other appearance at Portrush was in the 2012 Irish Open where he finished in a tie for 10th.

Molinari was one of Europe's major heroes at the Ryder Cup.

Molinari was one of Europe’s major heroes at the Ryder Cup.

The atmosphere, rather than his performance, is what stuck in his mind from that trip when he played with Portrush resident and then defending Open champion Darren Clarke.

He expects it to be even better as the Open returns to the course for the first time since 1951 with Rory McIlroy and fellow Northern Irishman and Portrush-born Graeme McDowell the home favourites.

“I remember the first hole: people both sides of the fairway all the way to the green, rows of people. I guess it will be similar for Rory and GMac,” he said.

“I think with the Open not being there for so many years it will be a great atmosphere for everyone.

“For the Irish people to have the Open back they’ll enjoy every single moment of it.”

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Tommy Fleetwood keen to keep perspective as he eyes Open Championship title

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Tommy Fleetwood is determined to keep a sense of perspective as he looks to end the major season on a high at the Open Championship at Royal Portrush.

Fleetwood was expected to contend for one of the game’s biggest prizes this year after his consistent displays in 2018, the Ryder Cup star finishing 17th in the Masters, second in the US Open after a record-equalling 63 in the final round, 12th in the Open and 35th in the US PGA.

However, so far this season his best result is a tie for 36th at Augusta National and the 28-year-old also failed to convert good chances to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational and Players Championship earlier in the year.

“It’s easy to say it’s disappointing but there’s no disasters going on,” Fleetwood told PA after a tie for 23rd in the Irish Open.

“I’ve not got loads out of the week and it’s easy to be disappointed but you have to keep perspective.

“It’s not like I’ve missed the cut by a mile and am going home trying to reinvent the wheel.

Tommy Fleetwood of England 2

“I felt a lot more comfortable with my long game and I don’t like being that person who is frustrated out on the course because I always feel I have a good sense of what’s good and bad.

“It’s just that when you know you’re capable of more and you’re not quite doing it, it’s difficult.

“I know the Open is around the corner but whether it happens next week or further down the line, there’s always massive things to play for and you just have to be patient and keep going and, more importantly, enjoy the game.”

Fleetwood followed his week at Lahinch with a trip to Wimbledon on Monday and watched the Centre Court action from the Royal Box.

“(Roger) Federer is the only one I haven’t seen play so that’s my life complete,” he said, before heading home to Southport to practice.

His previous experience of Royal Portrush in the 2012 Irish Open is a “bit of a blur” as it came during his first full year on the European Tour, but Fleetwood will still expect to improve on his major performances in Northern Ireland.

“I’ve done well in them in the past and at certain times this year I’ve been really good in the majors,” Fleetwood added.

“At the Masters I was not at my best game-wise but after two days I still had a good chance. The last day I was around top 10, top 15 having a really good Sunday, but backed up on the back nine.

“In the PGA for 30 holes I was the second best player in the field, for the last 42 I was probably the worst. At the US Open I struggled again but it’s four tournaments of a year.

“Those are the ones you want to perform in and I can look at the positives but the overall aspect is that it’s not been good enough. But I’d quite happily take the three finishes I’ve had so far and a win at the Open.”

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Duo among five affiliated MENA Tour golfers appearing at the Open Championship

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Matthew Baldwin has secured his spot at the 148th Open Championship.

In what is an historic moment for the MENA Tour by Arena, members Matthew Baldwin and amateur Curtis Knipes have secured their spots at the 148th Open Championship at Royal Portrush.

The Open, which is returning to both Northern Ireland and Portrush for the first time since it was last held at the iconic golf course in 1951, begins later this month from July 18-21.

The 33-year-old Baldwin, from Southport, currently leads the Tour’s Journey To Jordan (Order of Merit) over Frenchman Robin Roussell.

Knipes, from Chelmsford and just 18, is the Amateur Order of Merit leader enjoying a healthy lead over Josh Hill.

Also qualifying for the final major championship of the season is England’s Callum Shinkwin, who won the Omega Dubai Desert Classic Shootout on the Tour in January.

As many as 288 players teed up for the 36-hole shootout at four venues across the UK for a shot at 12 spots – three from each venue.

Curtis Knipes is only 18.

Curtis Knipes is only 18.

Knipes and Shinkwin topped the final qualifying tournament at Prince’s in Kent with scores of nine-under par. Knipes shot 67 in the morning and followed it up with a 68 in the afternoon. Shinkwin, who also won the qualifying event for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship a few days before his triumph at Dubai Hills, started with a 70 but was brilliant in the afternoon as he returned a card of 65.

Baldwin led at St Annes Old Links with a superb seven-under par 65 round. He then rounded off with a two-under par 70 to finish on nine-under par as well, good enough for a solo third place and a fifth appearance at a major championship.

“This is a historic moment for the MENA Tour,” said David Spencer, a Tour advisor.

“We have two full members at Royal Portrush, and Callum effectively kick-started our revamped Tour when he won the Omega Dubai Desert Classic Shootout.

“Let’s also not forget that two of our past champions – Jazz Janewattananond and Robert MacIntyre – have also qualified for the Open Championship. So we effectively have five players with MENA Tour connection in a world-class field of 156.”

Thailand’s Janewattananond, winner of the 2017 Mahasamutr Open on the MENA Tour, has been in great form recently. He punched his ticket to the Open by winning the SMBC Singapore Open in January.

Scotland’s MacIntyre, winner of the 2017 Sahara Kuwait Golf Championship, is now on the European Tour and made it to the Open as one of five players ranked inside the top-20 of the current Race to Dubai who hadn’t already qualified.

Knipes, who played at Royal Portrush last year in the Boys Amateur and got to the last 16, came through the regional qualifying before his remarkable performance on Tuesday.

“It’s huge to get into The Open – the best competition in the world. I wasn’t that nervous, I had nothing to lose,” said Knipes.

The MENA Tour is returning to the world schedule after a year of restructuring and features 10 tournaments in 2019. It will continue to provide Official World Golf Ranking (OWGR) points, thus making it a perfect pathway for ambitious young professional to the bigger tours, and for the players from the region to qualify for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

The second half of the schedule begins with the Journey To Jordan-2 at Ayla Golf Club in Aqaba, Jordan, from September 29.

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