Francesco Molinari goes from caddie at Augusta National to major champion
Thirteen years ago, Francesco Molinari was carrying a bag in the Masters Tournament. This year, his name will be the big leaderboards around the course before the first round starts as the current British Open champion.
It is a Masters tradition that as many as six players’ names are placed on the leaderboards before the first round. They are the defending Masters champion, current U.S. Open champion, British Open champion, PGA champion, U.S. Amateur champion and British Amateur champion. There will only be five up there this year since Brooks Koepka won the U.S. Open and the PGA.
Molinari won the 2018 British Open at Carnoustie by outdueling Tiger Woods and other big stars such as Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy.
Coincidentally, it was Woods who was in Molinari’s group in 2006 when he served as caddie in the Masters for his older brother, Edoardo.
Edoardo qualified for the Masters by winning the 2005 U.S. Amateur. That’s another Masters tradition: the current U.S. Amateur champion is paired with the defending Masters champion in the first two rounds, which happened to be Woods.
“It’s pretty incredible, if you put it that way,” Molinari said of his journey from Augusta National caddie to major champion, which has never previously been done. “At that time, I was just hoping to at some point qualify for a major - Augusta or the Open. Little by little, it’s been a building up of things up until last year.
“It’s going to be pretty nice coming back to Augusta this year having won a major and knowing that I’m good enough to do it,” said Molinari, who also won the Arnold Palmer Invitational in early March for his second win on the PGA Tour win in the past eight months.
When Francesco was caddying for his brother, he was 23 and just starting out on the European Tour. He remembers his brother introducing him to Woods on the first tee, saying “something like this is my brother and he’s a good golfer, too.”
Woods didn’t pick up on the fact Francesco was on the European Tour, but his cover was soon blown.
“Stevie Williams was caddying for him at the time and after a few holes he went back to my brother and said there is someone with a name very similar to yours who is playing on the European Tour and he said ‘yeah, he’s my brother.’ He said how is he doing? He said ‘good.’ He’s over there with the white overalls on,” Molinari said. “They didn’t get on the first tee that I was the one playing on the European Tour. It was a fun experience.”
It was also a learning one.
“That was the first time I saw close up how the best players play. I realized I was a decent player but I had a lot of work to do,” Molinari said. “I think just the fact of being there with Edoardo was a great motivation to push even harder and try to get there one day.”
A month after that Masters, Molinari won his first European Tour event at the Italian Open.
Does Woods remember that he was caddying for his brother in the 2006 Masters?
“I don’t know. I never asked him, to be honest,” Molinari said. “It’s a bit embarrassing. I’ll try to ask him this year if I see him.”
Molinari emphasizes that “there were a lot of of intermediate steps along the way” between him caddying in Woods’ group to outplaying him for the British Open title in the final round.
“Otherwise it would have been a pretty shocking experience,” Molinari said. “It’s obviously been 13 long years. Lots of things happening. Lots of work that I’ve done to get there.”
Fast forward 12 years to the final round of the 2018 British Open, Molinari was paired with Woods and watched the 14-time major champion take the lead at the turn. Molinari, meanwhile, parred the first 13 holes then made birdies on No. 14 and No. 18 to cap off a bogey-free 69.
Woods, meanwhile, was the one to fall back. He double bogeyed No. 11 and bogeyed No. 12. He shot 71 to finish tied for sixth.
“Clearly, in my group, the attention wasn’t really on me, let’s put it that way,” Molinari said. “If someone was expecting a charge, probably they weren’t expecting it from me, but it’s been the same the whole of my career. I don’t really care too much about it”
Molinari’s debut in the Masters came in 2010, four years after caddying there for his brother. He has played every year since except for 2015 and 2016. He’s assured of a spot in the Masters through 2023, thanks to a five-year exemption for his British Open victory,
His best finish in Augusta was a tie for 19th in 2012; he tied for 20th last year thanks to a 70-70 weekend.
“I hope to be a little better this year,” Molinari said. “The game was there already. It was just a matter of confidence. I’ve always struggled big time on the greens (at Augusta National).”
Molinari was one of the hottest players in the world from late May through late July last year with three wins and a runner-up over two months in what he termed a “dream summer” as part of his “incredible” season.
He won the European Tour’s BMW PGA on May 27, the PGA Tour’s Quicken Loans National on July 1, finished second in the tour’s John Deere Classic on July 15 and won the British Open on July 22. After his Open victory, his world ranking rose to No. 6 and he later won the European Tour’s Race to Dubai, as the tour’s leading money winner.
He capped it all off in September when he went 5-0 in Europe’s Ryder Cup blowout of the United States, teaming with Tommy Fleetwood for four team victories, then winning his singles match.
“I’d never won a Ryder Cup match and I won five out of five,” Molinari said.
He started this year ranked seventh and knows he has a tough act to follow after last year, when he cracked the top-five after the Tour Championship.
“I never thought something like this would happen to me to be honest, and now it’s going to be a challenge to reset and work as hard as I did the past winter and try to reproduce the same golf,” he said.