2005: Destiny’s child

By Dave Seanor

Ardmore, Pa.

One word captures the essence of Edoardo Molinari’s victory in the 105th U.S. Amateur.

“Destino, we say in Italian,” said Paolo Molinari, who watched in amazement as his son completed a journey that had more twists and turns than the road to their hometown of Turino.

Destiny. What else can explain the convergence of good fortune and stellar shotmaking when the chips were down that culminated in Molinari’s 4-and-3 victory over Dillon Dougherty Aug. 28 and added yet another stirring chapter to the storied history of Merion Golf Club?

The odyssey had begun July 25 when Molinari, who had chosen an Amateur qualifying site in Maryland over one in Florida because he assumed it would be cooler, endured a 100-degree day and was co-medalist at Hayfields Country Club.

When he got to Merion a month later, he needed to make birdie on the final hole to qualify for a playoff that would determine the final spots in match play. Molinari did it by holing a 40-foot shot from a bunker.

Once match play started, his first two opponents took him extra holes. On the 19th hole in Round 2, he was about to concede a 21⁄2-foot putt for a half, but thought better of it. His opponent missed; Molinari advanced.

Just when it appeared the wheels had fallen off during his semifinal match, Molinari summoned “the best shot of my life so far” and ended matters on the 17th hole.

Finally, after falling 3 down halfway through the 36-hole final, the Italian turned stallion. His 7-under-par total for the next 15 holes – including a tidy 18 putts – erased the deficit and earned a boldface entry into the U.S. Amateur history book.

“I just tried to stay as calm as possible all week long,” Molinari said. “What impressed me this year was how (Retief) Goosen played the first three rounds of the U.S. Open. He was just hitting shot after shot, and no matter what happens he was just going on and no reaction, so I just tried to do the same.”

Goosen, of course, became an Open footnote by collapsing at Pinehurst with a closing 81. Molinari, entered U.S. Golf Association archives as only the eighth foreign-born player – and first Italian –to win the Amateur. The last European to do it was Englishman Harold Hilton in 1911.

A historic achievement was in order since Merion had been awarded this championship to celebrate the 75th anniversary of Bobby Jones’ Grand Slam, which was completed here with his 8-and-7 victory over Eugene V. Homans in the 1930 Amateur.

Jones earned his living as a lawyer. After Molinari, 24, competes in this week’s Swiss Open, he’s scheduled to return to the Politechnico Di Torino to present his thesis and claim his degree.

“In Italy they call me ‘The Engineer’ on the golf course because I’m very meticulous,” Molinari said. “I just try to play the percentage, don’t take any risk, don’t do anything silly.”

More schooling – PGA European Tour Q-School – was supposed to be next, but those plans are on hold now that Molinari has the Masters, U.S. Open and British Open on his 2006 “academic calendar.”

Those who paid close attention to this summer’s British Open will recall Molinari. After leading the qualifying at Ladybank, he shot 70-70-74-75 at St. Andrews and briefly shared the early lead with Tiger Woods. His resume also includes victories in the Italian Amateur, Turkish Amateur and English Under-16 Championship. He’s been runner-up at the Spanish Amateur and Swiss Amateur, and was on the Italian squad that tied for fourth in the 2004 World Amateur Team Championships.

“He is not a shot out of the blue,” said Denis Pugh, the British instructor who has been fine-tuning Molinari’s game for the last year. Pugh also works with Francesco Molinari, Edoardo’s younger brother, who is a highly-regarded rookie on the PGA European Tour.

“This has been coming for a long time – you could say it has been engineered,” Pugh said, noting that he works in concert with Molinari’s home coach, Sergio Bertaina. “He will be quite at ease in the Masters and U.S. Open. He is very sure of himself, but not in an arrogant or cocky way. He has the sort of attitude that he can rise to any occasion, and seems to thrive on it.”

He did at the Amateur. Molinari’s medal rounds were 73 at Philadelphia Country Club and 73 at Merion, ending with the bunker shot at No. 9 (his 18th) that opened the door into a 19-man playoff for the last 17 spots in the match-play bracket.

In Round 1, it took Molinari 20 holes to get past Emilio Dominguez, little known outside his native Argentina, in a match that featured one hole halved with double bogeys. In Round 2, against University of Florida and Walker Cup player Matt Every, Molinari never had the lead until winning the 19th hole when Every missed the putt Molinari nearly conceded. Molinari was 3 down after seven holes and got back to even at the 18th only after Every bogeyed three of the last five holes.

Next up was Matthew Swan, who had ousted Michael Sim – the Australian who sits atop the Golfweek/Titleist Amateur Rankings – in 19 holes in Round 2. Par golf was all Molinari needed for his 3-and-2 victory.

It wasn’t until the quarterfinals that Molinari began to attract attention outside the Italian-American enclave of South Philly. He made six birdies in 14 holes against Dawie Van Der Walt of South Africa, good for a 6-and-4 victory.

“He’s very unemotional when he plays the game,” Pugh said. “He goes against the classical description of the typical Italian sportsman. Italians have a tendency to be fiery and emotional but he goes against the grain. He’s more Bernhard Langer than, say, Costantino Rocca. He’s very much a thinking golfer – very cool under pressure.”

Which he proved in his semifinal against U.S. Mid-Amateur champ Austin Eaton III. Molinari was 5 up after Eaton made seven bogeys in the first 11 holes. But Molinari faltered with four bogeys over the next five holes, and looked to be in dire straits after Eaton drilled his tee shot to within 25 feet of the cup at the treacherous 246-yard 17th.

“I thought it was my advantage,” Eaton said.

“He did a beautiful job answering me there. That shot was amazing.”

Molinari said the turn of events had made him “kind of nervous” as he went to the 17th.

“I knew he (Eaton) was going to come back in some way,” Molinari said, “but I didn’t think on the 12th tee that I’d be standing on the 17th tee 2 up with his ball 25 feet away. I said you’ve got to make a good swing here, otherwise its going to be even tighter. So I just take my normal routine and a couple of practice swings and hit probably the best shot of my life so far.”

Molinari’s 2-iron flew 245 yards, then came to rest 15 feet behind the hole, setting up a clinching par. The 2-and-1 victory set the stage for his 36-hole showdown against an even more improbable finalist than himself.

When Dillon Dougherty arrived on campus four years ago at Northwestern, his teammates – for reasons no one seems to know – nicknamed him “The Goat.” Dougherty, 22, never has won a tournament of note. He wasn’t on college coaches’ radar screens because he broke his finger as a high school junior and missed most of the recruiting season. Dougherty said he had never heard of Northwestern before his friend Tom Johnson enrolled there. Johnson touted Dougherty to Wildcats coach Pat Goss, who liked the Californian’s work ethic and competitiveness enough to offer him a scholarship. Now a fifth-year senior, Dougherty is a team leader.

“He’s improved his swing fundamentals enough to take advantage of his tenacity,” Goss said.

Dougherty arrived at Merion with an angel on his shoulder.

Dougherty’s first four conquests included some prominent figures at Merion. In Round 2, he dominated Englishman Gary Wolstenholme, the highly decorated Walker Cup stalwart who was hampered by a left wrist injury; in the Round of 16, he beat Dane Burkhart, the NCAA Div. 2 champion who shot 59 at the Palmetto Amateur and had taken down John Holmes and U.S. Amateur medalist James Lepp. In the quarters, he defeated Canadian Ryan Yip, who had ousted Brian Harman, a teammate of Holmes’ on the victorious U.S. Walker Cup squad.

He breezed in all four matches, trailing only twice – after one hole against both Burkhart and Yip.

“That’s what I was worried about a little bit,” Dougherty said. “My first four matches were as stress free as you can be on this golf course and in match play. I was up early in pretty much all of them. The stroke play rounds, I got off to good starts and I was playing well. So I didn’t have that (experience of) coming down to the last few holes 1 up or even or 1 down, having to make putts or anything. But I’ve been in those situations before, so I just felt confident I could still handle it.”

J.C. Deacon, a Canadian who played for UNLV, was Dougherty’s semifinal opponent. Deacon took charge early, but frittered away a 2-up lead with bogeys at the fifth, eighth and ninth holes. Dougherty went 2-up with a birdie at the 10th, but found himself 1-down after three bogeys in the next five holes. Then something cosmic occurred.

During the entire week, Dougherty’s thoughts – and those of his father, Dan, who was looping for Dillon – had wandered to the memory of his grandfather. Bill Dougherty, a well-known player on the northern California amateur circuit, died July 29 after sustaining injuries in an automobile accident on Father’s Day.

“I’m sure he had something to do with some of the stuff that happened out there today,” Dougherty said. “That’s not normal stuff that happened.”

Dougherty chipped in for birdie after missing the 17th green, then hit the stick with a 46-yard pitch from no man’s land right of the 18th green. A stunned Deacon couldn’t match the gimme birdie, and Dougherty won 1-up.

“I feel bad for J.C. Because I can’t imagine being in his position and having that happen to you,” Dougherty said. “Both of those were just unbelievably unexpected. I guess that’s how match play works. You never know what’s going to happen and how the tide is going to turn.”

As it did in the 36-hole final against Molinari. The Italian couldn’t buy a putt in the morning round. Walking down the 18th fairway as his man was icing a 3-up lead, Goss acknowledged that Molinari owned the more polished, fluid swing of the two.

“But Dillon has been more opportunistic,” he said.

That soon changed. Molinari birdied the first two holes in the afternoon, bellying in a wedge from the collar at No. 1 and making a 12-footer at No. 2.

At the par-3 third, after Dougherty had stuffed his tee shot to 8 feet, Molinari nearly made his pitch from deep rough and halved the hole. At No. 5, after driving into left rough and hacking back to fairway, Molinari nailed his third shot to 7 feet, saved par and won the hole.

At No. 7, after Dougherty had hit his approach to 7 feet, Molinari answered with one nearly as close. He made the putt, Dougherty missed and after 25 holes the Italian had his first lead of the day.

A 35-foot birdie at the ninth (the match’s 27th hole) – where Molinari had holed his crucial bunker shot five days earlier – put him in command. And two holes later, when Molinari rolled in a 30-footer to go 3 up, his father leaped into the air, yelling the Italian equivalent of “That’s incredible!”

It was, in any language.

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