I had a premonition on Thursday, June 28 this year. That was the day I realized Europe was going to win the Ryder Cup.
I just wish I’d had a premonition about Francesco Molinari’s 2018 season, because I’d be a very rich man.
June 28 was the opening round of the $7 million French Open at Le Golf National, the perfect sneak preview for what lay in store for the Ryder Cup. I walked with Justin Thomas, Tommy Fleetwood and home favorite Alex Levy. Thomas made a double bogey six at the par-4 fifth hole, and it became blindingly obvious the course just outside of Versailles would favor Europe in the fight for Sam Ryder’s prized chalice.
Thomas missed the narrow fairway with a 4-iron and could only hack out of the deep rough. It appeared to be clear, despite his protestations, that European captain Thomas Bjorn had influenced course setup to favor his team.
Narrow fairways played right into Europe’s hands. They nullified the power of the bigger hitting American team. Throw in slower greens and Bjorn had the perfect recipe for success.
That all proved to be providential. What I didn’t foresee back in June was the margin of victory. I thought Europe would squeeze out a win. No way did I see a seven-point advantage. I’m not alone. Anyone who says they predicted a 17.5–10.5 European victory must be called Pinocchio.
I’m constantly amazed at just how cohesive a disparate bunch of Europeans become every two years when the Ryder Cup is on the line. I’d make a fortune if I could bottle and sell Europe’s team spirit. While U.S. teams have to work at getting on together, European sides do it naturally. As Graeme McDowell explained to me:
“I started to think it was a bit of a fallacy all this talk about the camaraderie about the European team,” said McDowell, who served as one of Bjorn’s vice-captains. “It does exist. I saw it this week in front of my own eyes.
“European players naturally gel together without thinking. They become different people every two years. Rory McIlroy’s a different person this week than he is week to week on the PGA Tour when he’s looking after himself. Seve (Ballesteros) was the same. So was Ollie (Jose Maria Olazabal).”
Molinari’s victory in the Open Championship at Carnoustie runs a pretty close second to the Ryder Cup. I’ve known the quiet Italian since he arrived on Tour. While I always knew he’d win tournaments, I didn’t have him marked down as a major winner, or see him going five for five in the Ryder Cup. I did expect him to team with Tommy Fleetwood in the Ryder Cup since they’re close friends, but was as surprised as everyone else when “Moliwood” became a phenomenon.
I remember sitting down with Francesco about 10 years ago at The Wisely Golf Club near London for a Golfweek feature on Italian golf. We chatted for about an hour during which he patiently explained the Italian system of bringing juniors through the ranks. He even bought me lunch.
Thing is, he treats me exactly the same now after winning his major and having the season of his life. That’s not the experience I’ve had with some other major winners.
Who says nice guys finish last?
Georgia Hall’s victory in the Ricoh Women’s British Open at Royal Lytham is another stand out moment from my year in golf. I walked all 18 holes with her in the final round. As you’d expect, she started nervously and increased in confidence as the round wore on. Her opening tee shot was a thinned 4-iron to the opening green. I know. I’ve hit many thinned 4-irons in my life. Difference is, I don’t hit them to 25 feet and make the birdie putt,
Perhaps the greatest moment of Hall’s day was the reception she received after she emerged from her post-round interviews in the media center. It seemed every kid in Lytham was chanting her name. Hopefully a good proportion of those kids will be inspired to take up the game. British golf needs more Georgia Halls at a time when women’s golf in the shape of the Ladies European Tour is struggling badly.
The two Open champions actually have much in common. Both are calm, cool and collected. They’re humble. Most importantly, success hasn’t gone to their heads.
If only every year could produce such exemplary major champions.