HAVEN, Wis. — The happiest part of the 2018 Ryder Cup might just be the saddest layer of the 2021 Ryder Cup: only half of Team Moliwood is here at Whistling Straits.
The Italian side, Francesco Molinari, might be in Europe right now, where he last competed two weeks ago, or maybe in California, where he now owns a home. But one place he’s not is Wisconsin, representing Team Europe.
His most recently ‘liked’ tweet tells it all. On Tuesday evening of the Ryder Cup, Molinari tapped the little heart icon under this tweet from GolfTV exec Stina Sternberg:
“Will miss seeing these two together this week. Is it really a Ryder Cup without the Moliwood magic?”
A positive memory and painful reminder: whether or not you’re in form, the golf world moves on.
Moliwood will always have Paris. They’ll have the four matches they won together, three of them over Tiger Woods. They’ll forever laugh about the drunken, mostly naked video they filmed during the victory celebration. And a parade of appearances together the following months. Smiles all around!
But as Tommy Fleetwood reminded the press Wednesday, “[Moliwood] is not around this week.” He said we might be making too much of a deal out of it. Truth is, three years later, each half of that duo finds himself in a very different position.
Molinari was perhaps the best player on the planet during the ’18 Cup. But he’s fallen to No. 170 in this week’s world ranking. Fleetwood is back on the European roster, but no longer as the 12th-ranked player in the world, as he was in 2018. He’s quietly ranked 37th now, winless in the last 22 months. Once one of the 10 best players on the planet, Fleetwood ranked 105th in Strokes Gained on Tour this season. Even the trusty Nike 5-wood he used off the 1st tee in Paris is “in the garage somewhere.” It began to treat him poorly in the final event before the pandemic and has been benched since. Ironically, 16 months later, he was searching for exactly that at the Olympics. The 3-wood flew straight but he couldn’t keep the 5-wood from hooking. On his first swing of the tournament he pulled the 5, and sure enough he made bogey playing from the left rough.
Fleetwood will tell you he went months without quite feeling right on Tour last summer. While many Tour pros sprinted back to competition as quickly as possible after the Covid shutdown, Fleetwood remained in England with family for a number of weeks. With golf clubs closed across the country, he hit thousands of balls on a simulator, mostly alone, rather than practicing and playing alongside (and against) the world’s best. After four months he finally teed it again at the 3M Open. Missed cut.
It took Fleetwood “about three or four months” to feel right again, as he admitted at the Olympics. In the year that has followed, there’s been plenty of the good golf, and just a little bit that isn’t quite right. His 24 birdies or better at the Olympics were the most in the field and two more than gold medalist Xander Schauffele. Fleetwood probably should have an Olympic medal in his trophy case, but uncharacteristic mistakes have cost him in some of the biggest moments, like a sloppy double bogey at the end of his first round in Japan.
“I never hit shots like that,” Fleetwood told his caddie that day, fully confused at what just happened, his ball sinking to the bottom of the only water hazard in play on the course. The handful of photographers and journalists watching were confused, too. It was another good-not-great T16.
Captain Padraig Harrington would like to know if that the version of Fleetwood Team Europe will see this week. Or if Fleetwood will find what a number of European legends seem to at this event — that nothing-else-matters Ryder Cup bliss. You can see it in Sergio Garcia’s cheery press conference. Or in the endless confidence of Ian Poulter, the lowest-rated player by many analytics, who will surely snag a point or four this week. Rory McIlroy says playing without a hat at the Ryder Cup “is his thing,” and you’d be damned to doubt him when he’s not wearing a lid. Rather than turn over a new leaf, players reopen an old book at this event, filled with an archive of positive vibes. Fleetwood’s are as fresh as anyone’s. We all remember it.
Tommy. Tommy, Tommy. Tommy, Tommy. Tommy, Tommy Fleet-wood!
That’s how the 2018 Ryder Cup ended. Golf Jesus crowd-surfing upon the outstretched hands of European supporters. As a Ryder Cup rookie, it can’t get much better. Depending on where your allegiances lie, it’s either totally relevant or complete coincidence that those chants often continued with, Moli. Moli, Moli. Moli, Moli. Moli, Moli-nari!