ORLANDO, Fla. — Francesco Molinari’s win at last year’s Arnold Palmer Invitational — punctuated by the 45-foot haymaker birdie putt he buried on the 72nd hole to clinch victory — appeared to have kept the good times rolling for the 37-year-old Italian.
Molinari arrived to Bay Hill a year ago riding the momentum of a superb 2018 season — which was highlighted by three wins, including the British Open (at which he staved off Tiger Woods), and also a perfect performance at the Ryder Cup in Paris — as a player at the top of his game.
As the champion, he left Bay Hill even stronger than when he arrived then looked like he was cruising to victory at the 2019 Masters a month later, when he was again keeping the persistent Woods at bay … until the diabolical 155-yard par-3 12th hole on Sunday.
Molinari took a one-shot lead to the 12th tee at Amen Corner, watched in horror as his tee shot dribbled into Rae’s Creek, took double bogey and walked to the 13th tee having lost the lead he would never regain.
He finished tied for fifth at Augusta and, quite simply, hasn’t been the same player since, having played in 14 tournaments since and not contended once. Molinari enters Thursday’s opening round of the Arnold Palmer having missed the cut in three of his past four starts.
To Molinari’s credit, he has not sugarcoated his current plight.
“I wouldn’t say my confidence is particularly high right now, because I know where my game is at and it’s not where I want it to be,’’ Molinari told The Post on Wednesday during his pro-am round. “I try to be honest with myself. In golf, it’s never too easy because there’s a part of you that always makes you think you’re close even when you’re not. I wouldn’t say I’m particularly close right now.’’
These are not the words you expect to hear from a player about to defend his title. Many point to No. 12 at Augusta last April as the moment all hell broke loose for him.
“In the days after, you think about what might have been and how close you were,’’ Molinari said. “It hurts for a few days. But from then on, the performances have been affected by a few planning mistakes with what we were trying to do technically and physically. We maybe lost direction a little bit.
“Last year, I was coming in with loads of momentum from 2018, and even though a few things were not quite as good as the year before, that momentum kept me going. But then something like Augusta happens and you lose momentum, and it’s harder to get the scores and results back.’’
The irony about Molinari’s wayward shot at Amen Corner is that he’s as dialed in technically as anyone in the game — with his coach, Denis Pugh, and caddie, Mark Fulcher, a big part of analyzing his numbers. And whatever happened on that shot on the 12th, the narrow-margin miss cost him a second major championship in two years.
One of the holes Molinari played Wednesday was the par-5 16th — which is this week’s Aon Risk-Reward Challenge hole, a season-long contest that pays the winner $1 million (Brooks Koepka cashed in last year).
“Obviously, the analytics are a big part of our game,’’ Molinari said. “I’ve got two people on my team in charge of stats — my caddie and my coach, who’s been around a long time and looks into stats from year to year. I’ve also got a performance coach who analyzes my performances week in and week out to see what I can do better to gain shots against the field.’’
Indicative of Molinari’s downward slide, his strokes gained tee-to-green numbers have plummeted in the past few years. He was sixth on the PGA Tour in 2017, second in 2018, 82nd in 2019 and is 200th this season.
As important as it is for him to defend his title this week, Molinari’s focus is very much on cleaning things up in time for the Masters. Balancing that work while trying to win a golf tournament is tricky.
“It’s not ideal,’’ he said. “Ideally, you want to come here and be confident and clear about what you’re doing — a bit further ahead in the process so you can focus your mind completely on performing and trying to defend the title. It’s going to be tough for sure, but golf is a sport that surprises you.
“There are ups and downs in golf and our job as professionals — and my aim going forward — is to get back up to where I was a few months ago and limit those dips.’’