Frisky Fratelli: The Molinari Brothers are ready for a breakthrough at the 2010 U.S. Open

Frisky Fratelli: The Molinari Brothers are ready for a breakthrough at the 2010 U.S. Open

SPORTS SUPERPOWER: Francesco (right) and Edoardo won golf's World Cup last November, and when they tee it up at Pebble their country will be defending its soccer World Cup title.
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The wet spring in Europe was good for ducks, cinema owners and greenside rough, but Edoardo (Dodo) Molinari, playing a practice round in the hills above Madrid a couple of weeks ago, was interested only in the rough. Wielding his sand wedge like a spatula, he flipped his golf ball once, twice, three times, until it nested in the long grass instead of settling to the ground. He then tried to chip his ball a few feet onto the green, so it could trickle down to the flagstick.

Dannazione! The flange of his wide-open clubface sent the ball rocketing across the green. Dragging another ball over with his clubhead, Edoardo flipped it into a suspended lie, took a smooth, three-quarter swing and whiffed completely. The slender Italian — whose short game, by the way, is more than commensurate with his current position at No. 40 in the World Ranking — flashed a bemused smile and tried again. This time his ball hopped like a flea before tunneling into even deeper grass.

Laughing now, Edoardo, 29, turned to his younger, meatier and slightly higher-ranked brother, Francesco, 27, who was practicing mid-range putts to a tube of lip balm. Edoardo fired off a short burst in Italian. “Chicco! Sai come giocare questo colpo?” Which Francesco answered by grabbing his own wedge and throwing down some balls. Three demonstration shots later all of Francesco’s big-swing chips had plopped on the green and trickled toward the hole, and Edoardo was well on his way to getting it. His big swings, like his brother’s, now produced dainty flop shots that stopped near the hole.

“I told Dodo he needed to be brave and hit it harder,” Francesco said on his way to the next tee. “Drive the clubhead through the grass, and the ball will pop out nice and soft. But if you try to hit it high and soft — pffft!” He paused a beat before adding: “You get a lot of those kinds of lies at the U.S. Open.”?

Indeed, you do. It was from just such a lie, 28 years ago, that Tom Watson secured his only U.S. Open title by chipping in for birdie on the 17th hole at Pebble Beach. The Molinari brothers — who were 16 months and minus-five months old, respectively, when Watson darted onto the green with his club pointed at the sky — are hoping for something like that to happen to them next week, when the Open returns to the Monterey Peninsula. And not just hoping for it; practicing for it. “When you play the U.S. Open for the first time, you get shots you’ve never seen before,” Edoardo says. “Shots from tight lies, shots from deep rough, shots to hard greens. The only place you can really practice those shots is at the U.S. Open, but you can take advantage of similar conditions at other tournaments.”

It should surprise no one that the Molinaris, who have only 17 major championship appearances between them, imagine themselves dueling Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson down the stretch at Pebble. (Young players dream.) What’s surprising is that Woods or Mickelson can probably picture it too. In the past 18 months the Molinari brothers have raced each other up the World Ranking like sports cars on the Alpine roads above their native Turin. Francesco set the pace last year with five top threes on the European tour and strong finishes in the majors, including a 13th at the British Open and a tie for 10th at the PGA Championship. Edoardo, playing on Europe’s Challenge tour after a lackluster rookie season on the Euro tour, passed his brother and reclaimed his tour card with three Challenge tour victories and a playoff win over Robert Karlsson at Japan’s richest tournament, the Dunlop Phoenix. The brothers then took the checkered flag in tandem, winning the 2009 Omega Mission Hills World Cup for Italy — a country with an estimated golfing population of 100,000. Tellingly, when Dodo sank a three-footer on the final hole to win the Cup, he celebrated by running and leaping around the green with his arms outstretched, à la Watson in ’82.

Chicco simply watched, amused.

Do you smile at their nicknames? Edoardo is Dodo because his little brother couldn’t pronounce the name properly as a toddler. Chicco comes from Cecco, a common diminutive for Francesco.

The resemblance to the Marx Brothers ends there. The Molinari kids were let onto the fairways of the Circolo Golf Torino when they turned eight, enjoying afternoon outings with their father, Paolo, a dentist, and their mother, Micaela, an architect (now retired). Francesco, although younger, was physically stronger and had a bit more, as they say in Italy, sangue bollente — hot blood. “We were quite different when we were kids,” Edoardo recalls. “Francesco used to get very angry on the golf course, and I was calm. Now it’s almost the other way around. He’s calm and quiet, while I’m more extroverted and passionate.”

The brothers, who speak fluent Spanish and English in addition to Italian, were dissimilar in other ways. Francesco spent hours on the practice range, perfecting his swing, while Edoardo wore out the practice green with his putting and chipping. As a consequence they developed into curiously complementary golfers. Francesco became a ball-striking machine, a golfer with so much control that his tour caddie, Jorge Gamarra, says, “I can’t remember the last time I lost a golf ball with him. I think it was three years ago.” Edoardo, on the other hand, turned into your classic feel player — an erratic ball striker who could break opponents’ hearts with his scrambling. “When Edoardo had a hot putter he was unbeatable,” says the Molinaris’ London-based swing coach, Denis Pugh.

It was free-swinging Edoardo who first caught the world’s attention. Needing a birdie on the final hole to get into a playoff for a spot in match play at the 2005 U.S. Amateur, Molinari holed out from a bunker to stay alive. He then advanced to the 36-hole final, where he took only 18 putts on the last 15 holes to defeat Dillon Dougherty and become the first European winner of the American Am since 1911. Nine months later laser-straight Francesco — who was already a pro, having earned a three-year business degree before his brother completed the five-year engineering program at the prestigious Politecnico di Torino — thrilled Italy’s undernourished golf demographic by winning the Telecom Italian Open in Milan.

Four years on, the Molinaris are reaching parity as competitors, sometimes holding adjacent spots in the World Ranking (current standings: Edoardo 40th, Francesco 41st). The credit for that goes to Edoardo, who rebuilt his swing last year. “I’ve always been a big drawer of the ball,” Edoardo ­explained in Madrid, “but there’s always some hands involved with a draw. I could hook it badly, and I could also push it way right.” To conquer his two-way misses, Edoardo spent four months working on a fade at his home course, Circolo Golf Torino, traveling once a month to London to see Pugh. Dodo then spent the rest of the year kicking tournament natiche, setting a Challenge tour earnings record and topping a strong international field in Japan. “It’s really phenomenal how much he changed,” says Pugh, who put off retirement to work with the Molinaris. “Within two months he had a swing where he could power the ball with no hint of a hook. It goes dead straight or fades slightly.”

With both their games on the uptick, the brothers sometimes go their separate ways. In May, for example, Francesco crossed the Atlantic for the Players, where he pocketed $275,500 for his ninth-place finish, while Edoardo chose to play in his home country’s only tour event, finishing 13th. “I had committed early to the Italian Open, and they had already done their advertising,” explains Edoardo. “I would have felt bad had I let them down.” Francesco adds that there was an even better reason for splitting up: “It was the only chance for both of us to win on the same day.”

Grown men that they are, they have diverged outside the ropes as well. Francesco lives in London’s South Kensington neighborhood with his wife, Valentina, a former sports photographer with a law degree. Edoardo, meanwhile, remains in Turin near his longtime girlfriend, Anna Roscio, saying, “I don’t care if I have to take two flights to get home. I’d rather live in Italy.”

When their itineraries cross they’re still a brother act — sharing a house, practicing together, needling each other affectionately. Their current joint project is Majors Prep, which is why they spent their week in Madrid pretending that the foothills of the Royal Spanish Horse Society Country Club were the cliffs of the Monterey Peninsula. “Last year was my first U.S. Open, and I finished in the top 30,” said Francesco, waiting on a tee set way back in the trees for the Madrid Masters pro-am. “Bethpage in those conditions, wet and cold, was probably the toughest course I’ve played. But the way courses are set up for majors is good for my game. I go into this U.S. Open with a different mind-set.”

Admittedly, the brothers will be lacking the local knowledge of the American pros who play Pebble every year. The Molinari family visited the course years ago, on holiday, when the boys were 12 and 11. “We walked on the beach a little while,” Francesco remembers. “Then we managed to sneak on the course to see a few holes. The golfers were Japanese guys in buggies.” This time, he knows, the Japanese guys will be walking and they’ll have game. But so will the Italians, thanks to the Molinaris.

The brothers may still come off as tourists. Dodo plans to fly in on Saturday and spend Sunday afternoon playing Cypress Point with a member. Chicco will take his wife to a Carmel Valley spa. (“We didn’t have a honeymoon,” Francesco says, “so we’re making up for it with a few beautiful little trips.”) Come Monday, though, the Molinaris will be staying at the same hotel, dining together and teaming up for practice rounds. They will undoubtedly spend some time in Pebble’s nasty greenside rough, telling each other to be brave and hit it harder.

“To play all the majors with Chicco, that’s a dream come true,” Edoardo said on the eve of the Madrid Masters. Then, to prove that there might be more to the dream, Edoardo shot four rounds of par or better to finish 36th, and Francesco carried his pursuit of Luke Donald to the final hole, finishing third and pocketing another six-figure check.

Was it the Open? No. But it was food for thought.