Molinari set for Italian defence
Twelve months ago Francesco Molinari won the Italian Open for a second time, but as he prepares his quest to complete the hat-trick the tournament has been transformed in stature.
With a stronger field attracted by the increased money on the table, the Italian Golf Federation is keen to increase the sport's profile with the 2022 Ryder Cup on the horizon, but the defending champion knows they are up against it.
When it comes to crunch time you have to make the putts at the right time.Francesco Molinari
"It's pretty hard to change the culture of a nation," Molinari admitted ahead of his defence. "But golf's getting more popular."
He has played all but one of his national Opens in the 21st century and boasts a record which is the model of consistency. He has no fewer than 11 top 25 finishes, five of them top tens, including a win in 2006 as well as last year.
One of the sport's great long game exponents he told the New York Times that his strength has its limitations.
"The long game can take you only so far," he said. "You can be in contention and have good finishes more often than other people, but when it comes to crunch time you have to make the putts at the right time."
Ironically, when he left himself a tricky five-foot par save to complete the win at the 72nd hole last year, he was anything but shaky.
"It was a strange feeling," Molinari said. "It never really went through my mind that I could miss that putt."
He's yet to find victory this season, but two second-placed finishes, in May's BMW PGA Championship and August's USPGA Championship (his first major top five), show that his game is in order.
He is 14/1 to win the tournament for a third time, 8/1 to be Top Continental European and 10/3 to finish in the top five.
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