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In golf, the climb back to the top is a process that follows no schedule

Italy's Francesco Molinari, who won the National at TPC Potomac at Avenel Farm in 2018, returned for the Wells Fargo Championship this week. (Katherine Frey/The Washington Post)

The last time Francesco Molinari saw TPC Potomac at Avenel Farm, he had his foot on its throat. This was four years ago, and the Italian was in the process of unlocking the best golf he had ever played. Check out these rounds: 67, 65, 65 and a course-record-trying 62 to get to 21 under par and win the tournament then called the National by eight strokes. He essentially floated across the Atlantic thereafter and won the British Open at Carnoustie.

Early Thursday afternoon, he stood aside the same golf course and wanted only to forget how good that felt.

“It’s better just to kind of reinvent myself and try to find a new path,” Molinari said. “I think I can still play that kind of golf. But I don’t think I can do the same things to get there.”

Thirty minutes after Molinari assessed his situation as such, Rickie Fowler stepped to the first tee, shades across the face making him look like the star he is, a huge throng along the ropes indicating one of the Wells Fargo Championship’s biggest draws was about to begin play. Fowler has finished second at the Masters. He did not qualify to play there last month. He has finished second at the U.S. Open. If he wants to play next month’s Open, he will have to go through sectional qualifying.

“It’s been a long road,” he said.

Matthew Wolff is working on his attitude. It’s paying off at Wells Fargo.

Among professional athletes, the trajectories of golfers’ careers are marked by the squiggliest lines, silly string squirted out of a can. Career primes can become can’t-shake-them funks in a blink. Whiteboards are wiped clean, and swings are rebuilt. Suddenly, two guys who were Ryder Cup mainstays and contending to win majors can’t make the teams or qualify for the fields. It’s not unique to them. It’s called golf.

“It’s fleeting — until your name is Tiger Woods,” said four-time major champion Rory McIlroy, the defending champ at this event. “Then it’s not so fleeting.”

Fowler’s 2022 includes eight tournaments, five missed cuts and no better finish than a tie for 42nd. Molinari’s 2022 got off to a fine start with a tie for sixth, but in six tournaments since, he has missed two cuts and finished no better than tied for 42nd. They were once among the top 10 players in the world. They are now among the rest of us, trying to decide whether to search for your former self or find something new to be reborn.

Golf is fleeting and golf is fickle, and there may be a lesson in the experiences of Molinari and Fowler and all the players who have counted themselves among the game’s best, only to struggle to find the fairway, the green, the bottom of the cup. With few exceptions, there aren’t great golfers. There are golfers who produce great golf for periods of time.

“I think there’s times as a golfer where everything just sort of matches up,” said McIlroy, who played alongside Molinari on Thursday. “Physically, you’re feeling really good. Mentally, you’re in a good space. Your confidence is high, and, yeah, when you go through periods like that, you have to take advantage.”

That was Molinari in the summer of 2018 through the spring of 2019. The romp at TPC Potomac came in a six-tournament stretch in which he won three times, finished second once and tied for second another. The next spring, he won at Bay Hill, the perfect setup for the Masters. And after 54 holes at Augusta, he sat atop the leader board.

And then he lost it — not just the final-round lead in the Masters, where he flared an 8-iron into Rae’s Creek at the rascally par-3 12th, but his game. Since that Masters, Molinari has made 47 starts. He has not finished in the top five. He has moved his family from London to Los Angeles. He has just four top-10s. He has switched swing coaches. He has missed 17 cuts.

Yet there could be good vibes at this place. When he chipped in for a birdie at the second hole Thursday, a marshal shouted to him as he headed to the third tee, “Remember 2018 again!” Nice thought. He finds it counterproductive.

Thursday's first-round scores

“If anything, I’m just trying to, when I’m on the course, forget about that week,” Molinari said. “Otherwise I think expectations could be too high.”

Professional golfers are better than the rest of us. They also are the rest of us. Think back to your best round, your best swing. What went into it?

“Confidence was a big part of it,” Molinari said. “I think it was also two, three years of really hard work and really consistent work that got me to play that kind of golf for six months, really. It’s a great feeling. But if I want to get back there again, I think it’s almost better to forget what I was doing then and find another way to get there.”

Really? Why? You’re playing a course on which you shot a 62! Why not fire up YouTube and search “Francesco Molinari 2018 the National”?

“Because I think it seemed like it got to a point where the stuff that I was doing back then wasn’t working anymore,” Molinari said. “You start losing a bit of confidence. I think I’m a different person, a different player compared to four years ago. I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to try to get back there the same way.”

It’s so fragile. Fowler’s peak may have been 2014, when he was a 25-year-old who figured to be a threat to win anytime, anywhere for a decade or more. That year, he finished in the top five of all four majors, including ties for second at the U.S. Open and the British Open. But his most recent win came in February 2019. Since then, he has played 67 times, posted just 10 top-10s and missed 23 cuts. He comes here ranked 146th in the world.

The climb back is a process, and it adheres to no schedule. For Molinari, there was pride in grinding out a 1-under 69 on Thursday in which he put behind a double bogey at his fifth hole — No. 14 — and played the rest of the round bogey-free and 3 under. For Fowler, there were glimpses of what once was in a 4-under 66 that included a blistered driver to reach the green at the par-4 14th, setting up an eagle. He’s tied for eighth.

The line back to former form will never be straight.

“I’m trying to be better than I ever was,” Fowler said. “No one’s ever trying to go through changes to just get back to what was there or to kind of continue to stay the same. Everyone’s trying to get better. Unfortunately, yeah, it’s been longer than any of us have wanted.”

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Thursday’s progress doesn’t mean either of these guys is fixed.

“I’m happy,” Molinari said.

“A lot of good stuff,” Fowler said.

There are three more rounds this week. There are three more majors this year. These are careers that are evolving right before us. It’s not unique to Francesco Molinari or Rickie Fowler. It just might be unique to golf.