Why Francesco Molinari is my favorite player in the game today

April 7, 2020

Ed. note: This week, in honor of Tiger’s now-postponed defense of his 2019 Masters title, Bamberger, Briefly will comprise what are, at least in spirit, outtakes from his new book, The Second Life of Tiger Woods. For much more on the book, listen to Bamberger on the latest episode of The Drop Zone.

Everyone knows that there’s no crying in baseball (but there is) and no cheering in the press box (there’s that, too). What’s less known is that the sportswriter, especially the sportswriter on deadline, does extend thoughts and prayers in two directions: end in regulation and give me a winner I can write. In other words, you root for the story.

I have known for a long time my personality defects. On Sunday at last year’s Masters, I followed the final group: Tony Finau, Francesco Molinari and Tiger Woods. I was rooting for Molinari. Even though a Tiger win would have been a better story, better for my book, better for golf. But Molinari is my favorite player in the game today. He’s just such a straightforward, honest, hardworking and unflashy player and person. His golf seems to reveal his value system.

I had two lengthy interviews with Molinari last year, and three or four shorter exchanges. You can joke with him. When I told him that his natural speaking voice brought to mind Bernhard Langer and Henry Kissinger, as all three have mastered the art of the monotone, Molinari said, “Yes, I have been told that before.”

He talked about what it was like to caddie in the 2006 Masters for his brother, Edoardo, who got paired with Tiger in the first two rounds. He has been with Tiger dozens of times since then. How often has he ever brought up that experience? “I haven’t,” Molinari said. “I wouldn’t do that.” Most people would be dying to tell Woods some kind of personal story like that, and they do. Molinari felt that would be an imposition. That conversation was in March 2019, during the Florida swing.

Last year, when the PGA Tour played a FedEx Cup event at Liberty National, Molinari sat with me at length for an interview in the women’s locker room, which was being used for the week by tournament officials, although it wasn’t being used very much at all. He sat in a plush white leather chair and nearby was a selection of gourmet sandwiches and cold drinks that had gone pretty much untouched through the afternoon. “Look at this room,” Molinari said. “I didn’t even know they had this here.” It’s hard to imagine a veteran American player expressing any wonder like that.

It was in that same interview that Molinari told me about what he was thinking as Tiger shook his hand on the 18th green at last year’s Masters: “You’re part of a tournament that’s going to become part of golf history, but at that moment you’re just pissed.”

But the most telling comment of all came at Pebble Beach, at the U.S. Open. It was in response to a question that was difficult to word and hard to ask. Molinari had won the 2018 British Open, playing with Tiger in the last round. Nine months later, he had a two-shot lead over Woods and Finau through three rounds of the Masters. When he got dressed on that Sunday morning — blue trousers, off-white shirt — was he thinking about how that outfit might look with a green club coat?

“You of course don’t want to have such a thought but how can you not?” he said.

That’s one of the things that makes winning a first Masters so hard. That coat gets in your head and it’s hard to get it out.

Michael Bamberger may be reached at Michael_Bamberger@Golf.com

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