Molinari makes unexpected trip to Hawaii

Francesco Molinari

KAPALUA, Hawaii – The so-called European snub of the PGA Tour was supposed to be evident at the season-opening Tournament of Champions, which is missing Lee Westwood, Rory McIlroy and PGA champion Martin Kaymer.

All of them are PGA Tour winners, high in the world ranking, with no intention of taking up PGA Tour membership this year.

So what to make of Francesco Molinari?

The Italian was a surprise visitor to Kapalua. He became eligible by winning the HSBC Champions in Shanghai with as fine a performance as any last year, beating Westwood by one shot and finishing 10 ahead of everyone else in the world-class field. He is No. 16 in the world and has no plans to be a regular in America.

So why waste one of his 12 exemptions in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, and in the middle of a short vacation?

His wife, Valentina, is expecting their first child in February, so Molinari wants to get in as many tournaments as he can.

“My idea for this year was to play more in January,” Molinari said after opening with a 4-under 69 on a Plantation Course he had never seen until this week. “I was thinking of doing the Africa Open, but when I got a chance to come here ... it’s a great tournament, and I’m happy to be here.”

Molinari will return next week to London – he moved there from Italy last year for easier travel – and then play the Middle East on the European Tour before going home to await the birth of his son.

Because he has never been a PGA Tour member, Molinari can play as many as 12 tournaments. That typically means the four majors, three World Golf Championships and five regular tour events. He doubts he’ll reach his minimum, in part because he most likely won’t be at the Match Play Championship. His wife is expecting a week before the first WGC event in Arizona.

Molinari has not entirely ruled himself out, but it’s not currently on his schedule.

“There’s always the outside chance if the baby comes a month early, I might decide to come play,” he said. “But when the baby is coming, I want to be home for at least two or three weeks, if possible. It’s quite unlikely I’m going to play.”

Starting a family is yet another reason Molinari isn’t interested in being a PGA Tour member, although he loves playing in America. His first golf trip was to the Houston area in 2004 for The Spirit, an international amateur event. He didn’t return for another five years, when he qualified for his first U.S. Open at Bethpage Black.

“I will come over this year maybe two or three times to play regular events,” Molinari said. “It’s very nice for a European player in the top 50 to come here and play against these guys. It’s still part of the learning experience for me. Last year was the first time I played four majors in the same year. I’m trying to make the most of it.”

Molinari’s plan is to return to the U.S. in time for Doral in early March, and he would like to play the Houston Open after hearing strong reviews about the tournament and the course as a good preparation for the Masters a week later.

The Italian Open, where he won his first tournament as a pro in 2006, is no longer the same week as The Players Championship. It’s a week before the U.S. Open instead, although Molinari figures there will be a charter flight for Europeans.

Also on his wish list is The Heritage at Hilton Head, even though it is two weeks after the Masters this year.

“The great thing about being high in the world ranking is you can pick and play half the schedule here and half the schedule in Europe,” he said. “In the future, what I’m going to do with the baby coming, I’m going to have some interesting times. I think I’ll be a member in Europe for a few years. But you never know. I love being here.”

Molinari might not have registered with American fans until the Ryder Cup, and that was only memorable because Tiger Woods played the final seven holes against him in 7-under par.

His performance in Shanghai was simply stellar, though, with a 67-67 weekend to hold off Westwood in the Englishman’s first tournament as the No. 1 player in the world. Molinari didn’t have a chance to soak in that big win until he returned home after the season, and someone sent him DVD’s of his WGC victory.

“It was definitely a huge achievement, especially playing Lee. That wasn’t easy,” Molinari said. “I waited a long time for the second win, but it was probably worth it. You can’t play, unfortunately, every single week like that. At least it’s good to know you have that in the bag. If you prepare properly, you can do that sort of stuff.”

His infrequent trips to America included a stop at the Reno-Tahoe Open two years ago, when he was not in the top 50 and couldn’t play the Bridgestone Invitational at Firestone.

He loved it.

“I used to live in Torino, and it’s so close to the mountains,” he said. “It reminded me a little bit of home. We went to Lake Tahoe and I really enjoyed the week.”

Hawaii isn’t bad, either.

His pre-tournament festivities included a a boat ride with Graeme McDowell to watch humpback whales, and it made quite an impression when a few of them were right under the boat.

“That was great,” Molinari said. “We don’t have whales in Italy.”

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