ORLANDO, Fla. — The most feared short hole in golf exacts a toll every year at the Masters. And it may have stalled a career, too.
Some may view that as a leap much longer than the width of Rae’s Creek, and a heavy burden to place on a space of 155 yards from tee to green.
But there is no denying the slump Francesco Molinari finds himself in as he attempts to defend his Arnold Palmer Invitational title this week at the Bay Hill Club.
The Open champion at Carnoustie in 2018 and the first Italian golfer to win a major championship, Molinari, 37, was in position for another major victory at the Masters last year, only to have the gods of Augusta — not to mention a poorly struck 8-iron — conspire against him.
Molinari’s tee shot at the par-3 12th hole during the final round came up short, landing on the bank in front of the green and rolling back into the water — to the hushed excitement of Amen Corner spectators who sensed an opportunity for Tiger Woods.
The ensuing double-bogey for Molinari gave a handful of players, including eventual champion Woods, life. And Molinari has not been the same since, failing to post a single top-10 finish over the ensuing 11 months.
“For a few weeks it did linger, like any tournament would,” said Molinari, who was ranked seventh in the world after winning at Bay Hill a year ago but has since dropped to 26th. “But especially because it was a major and because it was Augusta. I don’t think it lingered for more than a few weeks.
“In golf, the margins are tiny. I analyzed the week and the last round a few weeks later with a calmer, milder mindset, and I really didn’t play that well on Sunday. I was fighting my way through. I didn’t hit many greens. And it was a tough day. Tiger missed some shots, too. I was scoring very well there until a few holes to play.”
The problem is, that kind of play has continued right up to this week, as Molinari tries to regain his form at a place where he shot a final-round 64 to win a year ago as part of an amazing run of golf.
Molinari began the final round at Augusta National in the last group with Woods and Tony Finau and holding a 2-shot lead. The summer prior, he had endured a Sunday pairing with the red-laden Woods at Carnoustie, failing to make a bogey over the closing 18 links holes to hoist the Claret Jug. It was looking like much the same at Augusta National. Molinari went 49 holes without making a bogey before finally dropping a shot at the seventh hole.
Still, through the 11th, he held a 2-shot lead over Woods, with the likes of Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Xander Schauffele and Patrick Cantlay in the mix. The tee shot in the water at the 12th changed everything. Not just for Woods, but for Molinari, too. After a double-bogey, they were tied.
“Just bad execution,” Molinari said that day. “I think we picked the right shot and just didn’t hit it hard enough, as simple as that. And it was tough today with the wind gusting and I managed to scramble well on the front nine and I think I just had a couple of mental lapses on the back nine that were costly.”
Often forgotten in the hysteria of that final round is that Molinari followed the 12th hole with a birdie at the 13th to stay tied with Woods. And they were still tied playing the 15th hole, as Woods found the green in 2 shots and 2-putted for birdie.
Molinari, however, in one of the few shots that TV missed, played a poor layup shot after a wayward tee shot. His second on the par-5 trickled through the left side of the fairway and beneath a tree. Although he had a short pitch to the green, his ball caught a limb and the ball dropped into the water.
“I was still in it, tied with Tiger, so 15 was the blow that kind of stopped my round,” said Molinari, who made a double-bogey 7 and finished with a 74 to tie for fifth.
He has not finished better than a tie for 11th in any worldwide tournament since, doing so at the defense of his Open title. During that span, Molinari played 18 tournaments, missed five cuts and had eight other finishes outside of the top 30.
Earlier this year, he switched caddies, going with Mark Fulcher, the longtime caddie of Justin Rose who sat out most of 2019 because of a heart procedure. And so far, little has changed, as Molinari missed three straight cuts earlier this year before a tie for 53rd at the WGC-Mexico Championship in his last start.
“I got as high in confidence as you can possibly get,” Molinari said. “Winning Bay Hill, almost winning the Match Play [third], and leading with just a few holes to go in the Masters.
“And then, obviously, when stuff like that happens, it affects your confidence. Then, on top of that, for various reasons, I started not swinging as well in the weeks after the Masters and then in the summer. After Augusta, it was like it was snowballing up.”
In the year preceding the Masters, Molinari won the European Tour’s flagship event, the BMW PGA Championship. He finished second at the Italian Open. He won the Quicken Loans National by 8 shots. He tied for second at the John Deere Classic, won the Open at Carnoustie, went 5-0 for Europe at the Ryder Cup, won the European Tour’s Race to Dubai, won the API and finished third at the Match Play.
With seven holes to play, he led the Masters by 2. And then it all changed.
“I had the best seat in the house in a way,” he said. “But in another away I didn’t have the best seat in the house because I was trying to win the tournament. Looking back, it was cool that I was playing there against Tiger.
“I tried to keep doing things the same. But something obviously changed that week in a way.”
And Molinari is still trying to figure it out.