HILTON HEAD ISLAND, SOUTH CAROLINA | Francesco Molinari can be stone-faced on the golf course, whether it’s while winning the Open Championship or cutting the heart out of the American team with his epic performance in the Ryder Cup last fall.
Even at the Masters last Sunday, when he was nine holes away from winning the green jacket, Molinari’s manner didn’t suggest it was different than any other tournament he’s played through his long career.
Only at the end, when two double bogeys in a four-hole stretch had undone more than three days of brilliant work did the disappointment show on the Italian’s face. He understood what had been lost in less than an hour on the back nine at Augusta National.
By the time Molinari arrived at the RBC Heritage, an easy three-hour drive into the South Carolina low country, Molinari had begun to build a layer of separation between what had happened and what lay ahead.
“It was obviously intense last week. I guess this is going to be the biggest challenge this week, to recover from last week. It was a draining week, and I need to get some energies back,” Molinari said Wednesday morning, the famous Calibogue Sound just behind him.
If it were only as easy as recharging.
In the first round of the RBC Heritage, Molinari – playing alongside Webb Simpson and Jordan Spieth – couldn’t summon the sharpness that had propelled him to a brief three-stroke lead on the closing nine holes of the Masters. The residue of the disappointing finish seemed to hang with Molinari as he made his way around Harbour Town’s tight layout on Thursday, chasing something he couldn’t quite find.
He was 1-over par in his opening round as he played the dangerous par-3 fourth hole (his 13th). He watched as Spieth struggled to pull a club as the wind came and went through the trees, finally settling for a safe shot off the right edge of the green, away from a lagoon.
When it was Molinari’s turn, he fired his tee shot on an aggressive line toward the pin, cut near the water. A gust of wind caught his ball and sent it into a bunker behind the green, leaving him a dangerous and difficult recovery shot.
“My concern is just having the mental energies to perform this week. … I’m going to have time at home to kind of reflect a bit more … ” – Francesco Molinari
On a secluded path winding among the live oaks toward the fourth green, Molinari slammed his club into the ground, frustration and fatigue coming together in the moment. If it was cathartic, it didn’t help. Molinari failed to get his bunker shot on the green and walked away with a double bogey, shooting 74 in the first round.
Then Molinari had to wait out a rugged weather delay on Friday, pushing his tee time toward sundown, knowing he needed something spectacular once he got on the course where winds were forecast to blow 25 mph.
Whenever Molinari leaves Hilton Head, he has a three-week break from tournament golf planned, a stretch of time at home near London where he can rest and reset in advance of the PGA Championship at Bethpage Black.
Seeing Molinari at Harbour Town was a reminder of how draining major championships can be. For some players, there’s a natural carryover from a big week, a chance to build on what they did the week before. Dustin Johnson, among the leaders at Harbour Town, is evidence of that.
For others, the tank is largely empty. In Molinari’s case, the emotional letdown was understandable.
“You’re never quite sure exactly how long it’s going to take but I think it was pretty straightforward for me to kind of digest last week,” Molinari said.
“My concern is just having the mental energies to perform this week. … I’m going to have three weeks off after this week, so I’m going to have time at home to kind of reflect a bit more and analyze with a colder mind and just move forward going towards Bethpage.”
Molinari left Augusta on Monday but it may take longer for Augusta to leave him.
Francesco Molinari plays a shot on the 15th hole during the first round of the 2019 RBC Heritage. Photo: Streeter Lecka, Getty Images
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