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Molinari seeking breakthrough victory at Players

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. (AP) — Francesco Molinari could be home. He could be hanging out with family and friends. He could be playing the Italian Open, a tournament he won four years ago.

He could be thousands of miles away from The Players Championship.

He could be missing out.

Instead, he took a chance on playing a course he had never seen and never played. It might be the best move of his professional career.

Molinari shot a 7-under 65 in the second round of The Players on Friday and heads into the weekend at TPC Sawgrass one stroke behind leader Lee Westwood (65). The Italian is tied for second with Heath Slocum (66) and Ryuji Imada (66) at 11 under.

"Everything seems in the right place," Molinari said.

A day after missing just three greens in regulation and shooting 68, Molinari hit every green in regulation and enjoyed a bogey-free round. It gave him a huge confidence boost in his first visit to the Stadium Course.

It also reinforced his decision to bypass the Italian Open, which is being playing in his hometown of Turin and has his brother, Edoardo, in the field.

"That, for me, was a really tough decision," he said. "Because not playing there for the first time — I've always played decently — and I won four years ago, so I was looking forward to playing the Italian Open, especially because it's in my hometown.

"But then I saw it was clashing with The Players. This is one of the tournaments you dream of playing as a kid and you watch on TV. I think it's easy to say now that I'm 11 under. But even if you miss the cut, it's one of those tournaments that takes you to a different level, and it's really good for your experience."

Molinari, who turned pro in 2004, has played in the last four majors. He's done fairly well, too.

He tied for 27th at the U.S. Open last year, tied for 13th at the British and then tied for 10th at the PGA Championship. He finished 30th at the Masters last month, two weeks after a runner-up finish at Bay Hill.

Sitting near the top of the leaderboard already has him thinking about the possibilities of winning his first PGA Tour event.

"It would be great for anyone, especially for someone like me who doesn't have status here in the States," he said. "It would be huge. But, I mean, it's too far away. I just need to keep focus on my game and just keep doing the things that I've been doing the last couple of days."

Few expect the Stadium Course to be as forgiving as it has been through 36 holes.

With two days of rain early in the week, high humidity and very little wind, the Bermuda-grass greens have been ridiculously receptive. Throw in a shorter-than-usual rough because of the severe winter weather and the scoreboard has been filled with pars, birdies and eagles.

More than half the field was under par through two rounds, and nearly two dozen players were at least 6 under.

Westwood leads the way at 12-under 132, the lowest 36-hole score at The Players since 1994. The 37-year-old Englishman has been on the cusp of breaking through with his first major over the two years — he was one putt away from playoffs in the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines and the British Open at Turnberry. He was a distant third at the PGA Championship last year, and was runner-up to Phil Mickelson last month at the Masters.

"As you get older, it gets harder to peak all the time when you want to," Westwood said. "You have to pick and choose your ones, and you want to play well in the biggest tournaments. And this is one of the biggest tournaments."

The biggest stars, though, are well back.

Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson will be around for the weekend, but probably won't be factors. Woods overcame one tee shot that flew off to the right at a 45-degree angle and gave him double bogey for a 1-under 71. Mickelson flirted with the cut line late in the day until making a tough chip look easy for birdie on the 16th. He also shot 71.

They were at 3-under 141, nine shots behind.

That might be too far back on a course where there already have been 73 rounds in the 60s, the most after two days on the Stadium Course since 1993. But with more heat and more wind, the final rounds could be as unpredictable as ever.

Molinari might even pull it off.

"I'm enjoying it a lot now, obviously," he said.