WENTWORTH, U.K. — Nice guys do finish first.
Quiet man Francesco Molinari crushed Rory McIlroy‘s hopes of a second BMW PGA Championship with a clinical display of ball-striking on the West Course at Wentworth and with it confounded even his own words of conventional wisdom.
At this year’s World Golf Championship Dell Technologies Match Play the Italian suggested he lacked the killer instinct to succeed in head-to-head golf. On Sunday he proved otherwise claiming a two-shot victory at the headquarters of the European Tour.
Starting the day on 13-under-par, alongside McIlroy and four clear of the rest of the field, Molinari, 35, was effectively thrust into another mano a mano-style contest and his response was not only stunning, but a complete subversion of even his own expectations.
He crushed McIlroy with a relentless display of long game skills which made a mockery of his previous difficulties to transfer contention into victory. Ahead of this week he had 63 top ten finishes on the European Tour yet only four wins. On the West Course alone he had time and time (and time) again threatened to lift the trophy, but always pulled up short.
He had five top 10 finishes here in his last six starts alone and last year he finished runner-up. Only on this day did he find the magic ingredient with a 68 which left him two clear of McIlroy on 17-under 271. In doing so he completed the greatest result of his career and possibly thrust the runner-up into a period of introspection.
Three shots ahead of the field after 36 holes, McIlroy’s own explanation for his weekend flop was swing based. “I struggled yesterday and I struggled today,” he said. “Maybe I just got away from some of the things I was working on early in the week. When you’re under pressure you revert back to what you’ve been doing. It takes more than a week to bed in a swing change.
“It’s better than my last outing so there is that. It’s close, it’s very close. My expectations are high and with a 36-hole lead I should have closed it out. I didn’t get the job done.”
There is the crux of the matter. What is it that prevents McIlroy from winning more? Is it a slightly better swing or a more cold-blooded approach? He does not possess the ruthless streak of Tiger Woods or the relentlessness of Nick Faldo. But nor is he blind to the side effects of the single-mindedness of those two men. It is a strength of his to be alert to this, but maybe a weakness on the golf course. He needs the secret of short term inspiration.
That it was Molinari who bettered him further highlighted the frustration: The perennial top tenner, the good egg, the match play fall guy.
“I think sometimes I just get too drawn in to what the other guy is doing,” he admitted. “But I was really good today, hitting good shots, focusing on my process and not worrying about anything else.
“I think the last bogey I made was on the tenth on Friday. So 44 holes without a bogey, it’s impressive, even for my high standards.” A shy laugh, awkwardly fearful that he’d boasted out loud. “I felt like I was in control probably up until 15, 16, and then the last two holes, it was more digging in than anything else.”
Only on the final green was there a threat of any last minute tumble. McIlroy found the heart of the green in two, Molinari laid up and his third shot span back towards the water, pulling up short on the fringe. The oohs and aahs of the crowd added to his nerves and his fourth shot only bumped the ball to within six feet of the flag.
McIlroy then hit an eagle putt which threatened to drop before stopping three inches short. What was going through the eventual champion’s mind as it neared the hole? “You don’t want to know!” he laughed.
As a 13-year-old Molinari had watched countryman Costantino Rocca complete victory at Wentworth. “It was when the tournament finished on a Monday,” he said. “So I got back from school and just watched the finish on TV. I remember clearly the last few holes, there must be something around here with Italians.”
Twenty-two years later he tied Rocca as Italy’s most prolific winner on the European Tour, jumped to fourth in the European Ryder Cup points list and leaps to third in the Race to Dubai.