Baldry: ASU's Molinaro learns to enjoy journey

Giulia Molinaro of Arizona State on Thursday at the 2012 NCAA Division I Women's Golf Championships at Vanderbilt Legends Club North Course in Franklin, Tenn.

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FRANKLIN, Tenn. – Giulia Molinaro grew up on a safari camp in Kenya. Her father, Fabrizio, said she had buffaloes for pets and a one-tusked elephant named Tusker that showed a particular fondness for her. It was dream-like childhood, one scripted out of Hollywood. In fact, a Google search of the Alfajiri Villas and the word “celebrities” shows that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie have stayed at her parents’ high-end escape. It’s an extraordinary example of luxury in the wild.

If that isn’t enough reason to envy Molinaro, she’s tied for the lead at the NCAA Championship with one round remaining. The Arizona State senior dropped 2.55 strokes off her scoring average from last season and claims to have no idea how that happened. She shot even par on May 24 at Vanderbilt Legends Club and is 4 under for the tournament.

“It’s only my head,” Molinaro said. “My game is exactly the same.”

What goes on between the ears, however, is what separates champions from the mediocre. Molinaro has long possessed the physical capabilities to play alongside the best, but it wasn’t until this year, assistant coach Missy Farr-Kaye said, that she learned how to harness “that beautiful Italian personality to her benefit and not to her detriment.”

“I don’t want to embarrass her,” Farr-Kaye said, “but for the sake of showing how much she has grown, she pretty much cried after every tournament.”

Rock bottom came in 2010 when Arizona State, down to only two players for a variety of unfortunate reasons, played in the Fall Preview at Texas A&M. Molinaro was crying, naturally, and Farr-Kaye asked if she was really ready to make some changes.

That was the moment, Farr-Kaye said, that Molinaro became coachable. She soaked up everything Farr-Kaye and head coach Melissa Luellen dished out. She quit looking back – literally, to the hole she had just three-putted – and started to enjoy the ride.

“I’ve managed to have fun playing this whole time, and the scores have been showing it,” Molinaro said.

Her best friend, teammate Carlota Ciganda, turned professional last year. While it was hard losing her constant companion in Tempe, Ariz., it enabled Molinaro to adopt her own practice style, one that’s less rigid and more social.

“Part of her spirit of the game is the social part,” Luellen said. “If she doesn’t mix that in, she’ll be miserable.”

It’s easy to understand why someone who grew up surrounded by such untamed beauty would need to stave off the monotony that comes with constant practice. Her senses are used to being overloaded.

Fabrizio Molinaro said it was luck that brought him to Africa. At age 22, the Italian came to Kenya during a break from medical school to be a wind-surfing instructor. He fell in the love with the place. Once he became a doctor, he told his parents that he wanted to stay in Africa a little longer. Thirty years later, the love affair continues.

Giulia came to Africa when she was 3 months old. Like her father, she was addicted to sport. Tennis was her first great passion, but when she realized she wasn’t going to be a world-beater, she took up golf at age 12 after an 18-hole course was built a half mile from their home.

The Molinaros' escape includes four five-star villas that feature a chef, butler and private pool. There’s also another less private camp that holds up to 30 people. The walking safaris take place along the river so that guests can spot game – crocodiles, elephants and hippos, to name a few. Visitors must be escorted on property after dark.

Molinaro doesn’t know enough to be a safari guide, but, not surprisingly, she has developed a love for photography.

Funny enough there’s a giant print of elephants in Kenya at the campus Starbucks in Tempe, and Molinaro has tried in vain to buy it from the manager.

“Whenever we see those pictures of elephants in Kenya, we will forever think of Giulia,” Farr-Kaye said.

An NCAA trophy would have the same effect.

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