FRANCESCO Molinari and the Italian Open return to Olgiata Golf Club for the first time in 17 years this week – and it is safe to say a lot has changed for both player and event since 2002.
Italy’s national open is now part of the prestigious Rolex Series, bringing a prize fund of $7million and a world-class field to the outskirts of the Italian capital Rome.
The field includes Hampshire’s World No. 5 Justin Rose, Open Champion Shane Lowry, Surrey’s Ryder Cup star Paul Casey and BMW PGA champion Danny Willett, from Yorkshire.
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.
The older Molinari brother – Edoardo was crowned US Amateur Champion in 2005 – went on to win his home open in 2006 for a first European Tour victory.
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, at Carnoustie, 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 – thanks to the famous Mollywood partnership with Tommy Fleetwood.
Molinari said: “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.
“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.”
Rose, runner-up to Molinari at Carnoustie, last played the Italian Open in 2002 – when he lent close friend Ian Poulter a putter that helped him win hs second Italian Open after his breakthrough win in 2000, in Sardinia.
Rose – a member at Fleet’s North Hants Golf Club where he made his name as an amateur – has 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.
Rose, who finished fourth in the 1998 Open as an amateur, said: “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.”
“I enjoy the off-course as much as the on-course and I’m going to stay for a couple of days in Rome after the tournament.
“Very rarely would I make that time at a tournament to stay after, in fact, never, really. So it just speaks of Rome and speaks of Italy that you try to make that time to really enjoy the country.”
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.
Willett still on a high after his BMW PGA win at Wentworth last month said: “They’ve given it another tier within the tournaments.
“You’ve got your Majors and your World Golf Championships and there’s always been amazing events that the European Tour have put on and this just separates it a bit more.”
“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.”
•For live scoring when the first round gets under way on Thursday click here.