Francesco Molinari fires a final-round 64 to capture Bay Hill title
ORLANDO, Fla. — Francesco Molinari posted an early number that no one could touch Sunday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
Molinari, five shots off Matthew Fitzpatrick’s lead after 54 holes and playing 10 groups in front of the final pairing, closed with 8-under-par 64 at Bay Hill, capping the round with a 44-foot birdie putt on No. 18 from a similar spot where Tiger Woods once made a putt to win the event.
“There might be something going on with that line,” said Molinari, a 36-year-old Italian.
It was good for a two-shot victory over England’s Fitzpatrick (71) and set Molinari up as one of the favorites for this week’s Players Championship.
He’ll also be one of the favorites in four weeks at the Masters Tournament, where he caddied for his brother Edoardo in the 2006 Masters and will be making his seventh appearance at Augusta National – as a player, that is.
Molinari, who nearly attended Augusta State after being recruited by then-coach Josh Gregory in 2004, tipped his hat to Palmer, who died in 2016, after he won The King’s tournament.
“Arnie was a special player but most of all, most of all a special person,” Molinari said. “He was really a global icon for the game. For someone like me, coming from Italy, him and Jack (Nicklaus) were up there as gods so to win here, it’s truly special. This is one of the tournaments my brother and I would watch many times and see Tiger win (eight times). It’s unreal to think I did it too.”
The top of the leaderboard was filled with international players. Korea’s Sungjae Im (68), England’s Tommy Fleetwood (68) and Spain’s Rafa Cabrera Bello (69) tied for third place.
The low American was former Georgia golfer Keith Mitchell (66), the winner of last week’s Honda Classic, who tied for sixth.
Molinari, who won the British Open, the PGA Tour’s Quicken Loans National and the European Tour’s BMW PGA Championship and starred in Europe’s Ryder Cup victory last year, isn’t normally a strong starter during a season.
“It’s nice to see a change in that trend,” he said.
After Molinari posted his 12-under 276 on Sunday, he had a two-shot lead on Fitzpatrick, who was just making the turn. No one ever got any closer.
Rory McIlroy, who trailed by one shot going into the final round, was the one who made the charge last year at Bay Hill with 64 to win by three. He didn’t have it this time, making just two birdies and shooting 72 to tie for sixth place.
Molinari did it playing a new set of clubs for the first time, but it was his putter that carried him to victory on Sunday.
Molinari needed his putter 25 times, calling it “one of the best putting rounds of my career.”
In contrast, the 24-year-old Fitzpatrick, who has five European Tour wins but was seeking his first PGA Tour title, needed 30 putts.
So did fellow playing partner McIlroy, who has failed to win in the past nine times he has been in the final pairing of a tournament.
“Tough day, tough to get it close to the hole,” said McIlroy, who was attempting to successfully defend a title for the first time in his 14-victory PGA Tour career, which includes four majors.
McIlroy wasn’t the one around the lead who couldn’t get a strong round going. The three Augusta-area players in contention after 54 holes know how he felt.
Aiken’s Kevin Kisner, two shots off the lead at the start of the day, shot 75 and tied for 23rd. Augusta resident Luke List, who was three back after 54 holes, shot 71 and tied for 10th. Augusta native Charles Howell, also three back going into the final day, had 72 and tied for 15th place.
“Today I really didn’t have it but I was happy with the way I hung in there,” List said.