AUGUSTA, Ga. – He doesn’t seek the spotlight, but the eyes of Augusta are now on Francesco Molinari. He is humble, stoic and scholarly, and he possesses all the attributes required for a Sunday jacket-fitting: quiet confidence, a swing built for power and accuracy, and a silky putting stroke he spent more than a year retooling.
Oh, and we can’t forget the antibiotics. Those are big, too.
That’s right. According to his coach, the unflappable Italian has had a sore throat since Tuesday, when he practiced in the warm rain and then jumped into Augusta’s stately clubhouse and locker rooms, where the air conditioners are set to blast.
“His throat is a product of good old American heating systems,” his longtime coach Denis Pugh said with a laugh this week. “We can’t believe how cold the rooms are with your air conditioning!”
Pugh is a Londoner, and Molinari hails from Turin and now lives in London, and yes, American central air is indeed a force to behold. It’s the only thing that has knocked Molinari off course through 54 holes at this 83rd Masters, where he shot a bogey-free 66 on Saturday to grab a two-shot lead over Tiger Woods and Tony Finau. They’ll tee off together as a threesome Sunday morning.
Molinari picked up a prescription from a local doctor for his scratchy throat, and even though he’s already bagged a British Open and starred in a Ryder Cup, this week in Augusta might be his most impressive work yet. He’s made just one bogey all week — one! — while hitting 72% of his greens and taking 1.48 putts per hole, good for second in the field. He has not three-putted.
Molinari had it all on display Saturday afternoon. Did you see him deftly lag-putt from the front of the 9th green to set up an easy par? That’s a three-putt for many guys in this field. Or how about his near-ace on the famed par-3 12th? You won’t see a more purely struck iron shot. And what about muscling up to reach the green in two from the rough on 13? He stepped through his follow-through like Gary Player in his prime, and his ball plopped safely aboard to set up a birdie.
Power happens to be Pugh’s bread and butter. He coached Colin Montgomerie in his heyday and began working with Molinari in ’04. He says Molinari realized a couple years ago that most of the top players in the world also happened to be the longest hitters, and he committed to a swing and body rebuild. The result: about 20 extra yards off the tee. This week he ranks a respectable 27th in distance, at 298.67 yards per poke.
“He wasn’t gifted with power,” Pugh said, “but he was willing to do the gym and the physical aspects. We had to take out the rest.”
Molinari “took out” the shifts and twitches and turns in his swing that didn’t add pop — for example, one of his old power-sapping habits was to flex his right knee in his backswing — and for nearly a year he’s been cashing in on the results. Pugh also noted that Molinari keeps things simple. His relatively small team is committed entirely to his game: one coach for his swing (Pugh), chipping (James Ridyard), putting (Phil Kenyon), physio (Rob Goldup) and overall performance (Dave Alred) to keep things in tune. No entourage. No shrinks.
“If you hit the ball great and you have trophies and you don’t feel good, then you bring in the psychologist,” Pugh said. “That’s not the case with Francesco.”
On Saturday evening, Molinari said he considers working with Pugh to be the turning point of his career.
“He’s been the biggest influence on my game. I think he has as much knowledge about the game as anyone,” Molinari said. “And at the same time, he’s been smart enough to help me find other people that could help me with my game in different areas.”
While Pugh never got Montgomerie over the hump in a major championship, Molinari, who possesses fewer physical gifts, is the reigning Champion Golfer of the Year and the culmination of 15 years of work.
“Colin was such a natural talent, when the shots didn’t come out it was hard for him to fix,” Pugh said. “Francesco is more mechanical – he understands his swing completely. He can fix things on the course.”
He hasn’t had to fix much yet, and given how things turned out the last time Molinari and Woods played together on Sunday at a major, Molinari should feel confident. (He won that day by two.) Of course, this is Augusta, not Carnoustie. “I think how I hit the ball tomorrow will help my comfort a lot more than thinking about Carnoustie,” Molinari said with a grin. “I don’t think I’ll be thinking about Carnoustie a lot.”
Ironically, when Woods won his seismic Masters in 1997 by 12 shots, he was also paired with an Italian on Sunday: Costantino Rocca. Woods got the best of Rocca that day (Rocca only wanted to beat Tiger for 18 holes; he knew the jacket was unattainable), and that night the Italian drowned his sorrows at T-Bonz Steakhouse, a popular spot just down the road from the club. Frankie knows Rocca well and considered him a role model, but unlike his hero, Molinari won’t start his final round nine shots behind Woods. And given his scratchy throat, Molinari is unlikely to pop up at an Augusta watering hole. He’s just going to stick to his routine with Pugh.
“Tonight, we’re going to have some food and have a chat, and tomorrow morning, more of the same,” he said. “It’s just a warm‑up for the round. It’s more physical and mental than anything technical.
“We are definitely not going to do anything different tomorrow.”
Sounds like a plan.