Francesco Molinari and the Italian Open return to Olgiata Golf Club for the first time 17 years this week and it is safe to say a lot has changed for both player and event since 2002.
“I think it sums up the journey that I’ve had in golf, how lucky I’ve been and how hard I’ve worked as well. I was here on this course 17 years ago as an amateur making the cut and I think finishing 25th or something like that and starting to think, maybe I could make a living doing this. Fast forward 17 years and obviously things have gone far better than expected at the time.”
Italy’s national open is now part of the prestigious Rolex Series, bringing a prize fund of US$7million and a world class field to the outskirts of the capital that includes World Number Five Justin Rose, Open Champion Shane Lowry, Ryder Cup star Paul Casey and BMW PGA champion Danny Willett.
When Ian Poulter lifted the trophy in 2002 at Olgiata, Molinari was still an amateur, making his first European Tour cut five days short of his 20th birthday, before going on to win his home open in 2006 for a first European Tour victory.
“I think the first win on Tour, at least for me, I never knew it was coming. I think no one really expected me to win at the beginning of the week and you can almost feel the expectations growing through the week.
“Just an amazing relief I think to the 18th green and seeing all the people there celebrating, lots of friends and family. I couldn’t have asked for a better first win on Tour.”
A Ryder Cup debut and World Golf Championships victory would come in 2010, as well as a second Italian Open title in 2016, but even those successes could not prepare him for the glorious summer of 2018.
A first Rolex Series victory at the BMW PGA Championship and a Major triumph at The Open helped him win the Race to Dubai, while he also became the first European to take five points from five as the Ryder Cup was regained in Paris.
Rose last played the Italian Open in 2002 and with two Rolex Series titles at the Turkish Airlines Open to his name, a third victory in Rome could provide a platform for a tilt at Race to Dubai glory.
“They are a highlight on my calendar in terms of when I’m preparing my schedule. I look at all the important tournaments around the world and try to make sure I’m ready and prepared for them. Rolex Series are in that category.
“The next month for me is really, really important and I feel like I’m in a position where I have to win probably two or three events between now and Dubai to challenge the leaders but it’s possible.”
Willett finished third on his Italian Open debut in 2015 and his second placed result in 2016 was his best finish between his Masters Tournament victory and his triumph at the 2018 DP World Tour Championship, Dubai.
“I’ve always had pretty good crowd interaction out here. I’ve had some pretty good groups, I’ve played with Frankie (Molinari) a lot out here and gone close a couple of times at Monza.
“All the fans here love their golf and they’re really passionate about sport and we get to play some pretty cool venues so hopefully we can have more of the same. It’s a pretty cool place.”