Francesco Molinari (finally) to return in Las Vegas after 7-month layoff

If you had Francesco Molinari in your pool as the last prominent player to return from golf’s COVID-19 shutdown, you should’ve collected your winnings by now.

Molinari, the 2018 British Open champion, is set to make his first start since the Players Championship in March this week at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in Las Vegas, ending a seven-month layoff.

“Not something I thought I would do in my career, but, you know, in a way it was nice to take a break and stay away for a bit,” he said during a pre-tournament interview Wednesday. “I’ve been playing probably as little golf as ever in my life. I’m definitely far away from where I want to be physically, mentally, technically in the long-term.”

Not surprisingly, Molinari’s expectations are low this week at TPC Summerlin despite the fact that he finished tied for fourth on the Bobby Weed design in 2016. As a matter of fact, Molinari, who withdrew from both the PGA Championship and U.S. Open, conceded that he expects it to be a long road back to prominence, and it’s unlikely his game will be sharp in time for next month’s Masters.

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“Probably I will need an extra month or so,” he said. “My goal mentally really is to be 100% for January next year. Anything that comes before then in this period of time, it’s kind of a bonus.”

What took Molinari, 37, so long to return to work? He decided the time was right to move his family to the United States. It was a decision at least two years in the making. The Italian had called London his home base for more than 12 years, but he and wife Valentino have had two children – Tommaso, 9, and Emma, 5 – and spent more and more time in the U.S. ever since he joined the PGA Tour in 2014.

Champion golfer Francesco Molinari of Italy with the Claret Jug in the players locker room after winning the 147th Open Championship at Carnoustie Golf Club on July 22, 2018. (Photo by Warren Little)

“The situation with COVID kind of made us think about our setup, and when it kind of happened I was over here in Florida; my wife was in London; both our of families were in Italy,” he explained. “So, you ask yourself a few questions, and we just decided to make the move…I want to try and achieve as many things as possible in, let’s say, the second part of my career.”

Molinari uprooted the family to California in May. They considered San Francisco, but eventually settled on Los Angeles. Molinari happened to be in San Francisco during the week that the PGA Championship was contested in the Bay Area at TPC Harding Park, but Molinari was busy getting acclimated  to his new surroundings and recalled taking his kids to the zoo. He’s purchased a home, enrolled his kids in school and began practicing at Virginia Country Club, where instructor Jamie Mulligan is the director of golf and looks after the likes of Patrick Cantlay, Luke List and Paul Goydos.

It was just over two years ago that Molinari’s stardom went next level as he teamed with Tommy Fleetwood to gain Ryder Cup hero status after becoming the first European golfer in history to win five points out of five at a Ryder Cup. He had one arm in the green jacket at the 2019 Masters, holding the lead through 65 holes until he rinsed his tee shot at 12 and finished tied for fifth. He’s failed to record a top-10 finish since, falling from No. 6 in the world to No. 73 this week, and noted that the cancellation of golf tournaments for three months came at a good time for him.

“I wasn’t in a great place with my game back then and I was low in confidence,” he said.

Now, he’s refreshed and motivated to climb the mountain again with the help of his London-based instructor Dennis Pugh. They did it once, so Molinari is confident that they can do it again despite the long distance.

“I’m in a different stage in my career. I feel I can manage better my game and my swing. I know more about it. With the technology, you know, available nowadays, I can send him videos, we can do live sessions,” he said. “So, there is ways to go around it. We’ll see how that works, but I’m pretty positive we can still do some good work together.”

He added: “I know it’s not going to be that easy. But I’m ready for the challenge.”

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