As Francesco Molinari exited stage left, skirting round scenes of joy engulfing Tiger Woods at the 2019 Masters, little did the Italian know he was to endure the longest of waits. Almost 600 days have passed since Molinari’s painful implosion as Woods, the resurgent hero, seized the chance to claim a 15th major title. This week, Molinari will relish putting some demons to rest as Augusta National stages a Masters like no other.
“It would have been good to go back after a year and get that closure, to move on,” Molinari admits. “It has been harder not to have been back there yet. Hopefully this brings that sense of closure and it will be easier to move on. It has been so long.
“When I look back, I think that I actually played very well but obviously some small details made a difference. In the immediate aftermath I didn’t give myself enough credit for how I played for four days.”
Molinari’s costly wobble, which started with a ball hit into Rae’s Creek on the 12th hole of the final round, was uncharacteristic. At that juncture – April 2019 – he was the reigning Open champion. Just a month earlier, he had won on the PGA Tour. “Unfortunately my natural tendency is to think more about defeats and the ones I don’t win,” admits the 38-year-old. “That’s just how my brain has always worked. It gives me motivation.”
There is broader cause to relish Molinari’s appearance in Georgia. This weekend’s Houston Open marked just his second tournament start post-lockdown. The impact of Covid-19 triggered a rethink that resulted in he, his wife and two children leaving London – their home of 12 years – to set up base in California. Going without belongings for 13 weeks was one thing, the seismic shift in life patterns quite another.
“In March, when everything stopped, when they closed the borders from the US to the UK, it was a strange feeling to know I would so far away [if playing] when they were in England,” Molinari says. “We have taken for granted the ability to move from one country to the other. That’s not the case any more and obviously I wanted to keep playing in the States. It seemed a good idea to get there together and at least give it a go, to see if we could spend more time together as a family. Things worked well for my golf in the past but inevitably, because of the longer travelling, there had to be more time away from my wife and the kids. It was about spending more time together.
“Covid made it harder than it would have been. Emotionally, we had left all our friends behind in London and that’s not easy. With Covid, you had that thought in the back of your mind that you can’t really go back whenever you want. When we got over here, it was hard to meet people because a lot of things were closed and everyone is being careful. So the circumstances made it even harder and it would normally be hard anyway.”
Molinari missed his competitive environment – which included the US PGA Championship and US Open – but has no regrets about his extended break. “It’s important to have the right advice,” he says. “People around me told me to give the family priority, to settle just a little bit more, and you’ll be back when you are ready.”
Could Augusta deliver another redemption tale? “I will want to compete,” Molinari says. “Winning, I think, would be a huge surprise even to me. I’m excited to come back now because I think I can be competitive. Any major is so incredibly hard to win in normal circumstances, I’m not sure what the chances are after such a long break. I see this more as a step in the process to getting back to where I normally am, week in and week out. We are competitors and I’m sure when I’m on the 1st tee I’ll just be trying to play as well as I can. The start will be important for me, in terms of dictating how I go.”