During his teenage years, as a highly skilled golfer with aspirations of playing professionally, Francesco Molinari was among the many admirers of Tiger Woods, paying close attention to the then-burgeoning career of one of the sport’s iconic figures.
Years later, in 2012, the Italian-born resident of England found himself facing Woods in the anchor match of the Ryder Cup at Medinah Country Club. Molinari earned a halve, and the Europeans rallied from a four-point deficit to win, 14½ -13½ , in one of the most unlikely upsets in the series.
They were connected again Sunday, albeit briefly, during the final round of the Quicken Loans National at TPC Potomac at Avenel Farm, with Molinari holding the lead and Woods chasing him in search of his first PGA Tour triumph in nearly five years.
But the closest the 14-time major champion came Sunday was four strokes. Molinari, playing several groups behind his childhood idol and the tournament host, countered with a dominant surge to start the back nine as part of an 8-under-par 62 that sent him to his first PGA Tour victory in record fashion.
“It’s amazing to win a tournament hosted by Tiger, probably the greatest ever to play the game,” said Molinari, 35, who’s ranked 17th in the world. “I grew up as a teenager watching him on TV dominating golf tournaments. It’s even more special to win in this style, and to get his congratulations on the last green is a very proud moment for me.”
Molinari’s 21-under 259 is the lowest score in Quicken Loans National history, three shots better than Troy Merritt in 2015. The eight-stroke margin of victory over Ryan Armour is also a tournament mark, five better than the previous margin.
The future of a PGA Tour stop in the D.C. area, however, remains in doubt after the Quicken Loans National lost its title sponsor to a new event set for June 2019 in Detroit, where the country’s largest mortgage lender is headquartered. The D.C. suburbs have regularly hosted a professional golf tournament since 1980. Woods, 42, founded the National in 2007 in large part to honor military personnel.
“It is in question,” said Woods, who fired a 4-under 66 to finish in a tie for fourth with Abraham Ancer, 10 shots back. “It’s frustrating because this is a great sporting town. This D.C. area, they support all their sports and have supported this event. Unfortunately, we just haven’t been able to find a title [sponsor].”
If this was its swan song, Molinari made it a final round to remember despite a heat index that exceeded 100 degrees. After birdies on Nos. 2 and 6, he opened the back nine with a 49-foot putt for an eagle at the par-5 10th. He followed with four consecutive birdies, the last coming at the par-4 14th after Molinari blasted out of a greenside bunker to inside of three feet.
The streak — and a chance at perhaps carding a 59 — ended when Molinari drove his tee shot at the par-4 15th into the rough 323 yards away, hit his approach into the rough 25 feet behind the pin and chipped to four feet. He settled for a par, but by then, Molinari’s win was a formality.
Molinari joined the PGA Tour as a playing member in 2015 after turning professional in 2004, earning his European Tour card the next year. He has five wins on the European Tour and is coming off his best year financially on the PGA Tour, having collected nearly $2.9 million in 2017 with five top 10s.
“I’ve always said that the next stage of my career would have been to win over here, and to do it in this fashion, it’s even better,” Molinari said after matching the tournament single-round course record set multiple times this past week. “I’m very proud the way I played today, probably some of the best golf I’ve ever played and I’ll ever play in the future. I think it’s hard to play better than this.”
The victory gives Molinari a full exemption on tour through 2020 and vaults him to 42nd in the FedEx Cup standings. The top 125 players qualify for the four-event FedEx Cup playoffs to determine the season champion.
Molinari entered this past week 123rd in the standings, electing to play here instead of at the French Open at Le Golf National, site of this year’s Ryder Cup, where he could have sought points toward making the European team.
“When you play two tours, you need to balance the two things,” he said. “It wasn’t an easy decision. I thought until the last minute whether to go to France or to come here, but seems like it was the right choice in the end.”
Armour, third-place finisher Sung Kang (12-under 268), Ancer and Bronson Burgoon (tied for sixth at 10-under 270) earned exemptions to the British Open, which opens July 19 at Carnoustie.