Golf

Molinari shows increased comfort level with opening 66 at Wells Fargo Championship

Francesco Molinari answers questions Thursday after shooting a 66 to lead the Wells Fargo Championship at Eagle Point Golf Club after the first round.
Francesco Molinari answers questions Thursday after shooting a 66 to lead the Wells Fargo Championship at Eagle Point Golf Club after the first round. submitted photo

Francesco Molinari believes his results will improve as he become more comfortable on the PGA Tour.

After a decade in Europe, Molinari has made a commitment to the PGA Tour and is now in his third full season despite still living abroad.

He looked quite comfortable Thursday in the opening round of the Wells Fargo Championship. Molinari shot a 6-under 66 to take the lead in the tour’s first ever round at Eagle Point Golf Club.

“It’s not easy I think for us coming over. It took me a couple of seasons to adapt and to get used to the courses and the conditions,” Molinari said. “It was a new challenge coming here two years ago playing more tournaments here and I enjoyed it a lot, and obviously now I feel more comfortable and I’ve improved a lot in the last couple of years and I’m looking forward to this season.”

The 34-year-old Italian has a one-shot lead over Sweden’s Alex Noren, J.B. Holmes, Grayson Murray and Brian Campbell. Ben Martin, Ken Duke and Ireland’s Seamus Power are two shots back at 4-under 68, and Jon Rahm is one of six players at 69.

Coastal Carolina alumnus and world No. 1 Dustin Johnson shot a 2-under 70 after beginning his round 3-under through seven holes and is tied for 15th. Johnson is playing in his first tournament in six weeks after suffering a back injury and missing the Masters.

“I didn’t really know what to expect because I really haven’t played or practiced,” Johnson said. “But I’m pleased with where my game is.”

With only a few exceptions, everyone is the field is experiencing Eagle Point for the first time this week, and Molinari has quickly taken to the Tom Fazio design.

“It’s not the longest, but especially with the breeze, you need to hit good shots,” said Molinari, who tied for 17th in his Wells Fargo debut last year at Quail Hollow Club. “You need to hit not only the greens but you need to hit the ball in the right spot on the greens to leave makable putts. It’s good fun. Every hole is different. It challenges every part of your game and I really enjoyed it today.”

Molinari, who is still seeking his first PGA Tour win or runner-up in his 99th tournament, last won in the Italian Open in September. He has a pair of third-place finishes in 2011 and 2015.

Molinari was a member of the European Tour for 11 years from 2005-15 and has four European Tour victories, but he hasn’t played in Europe or on the European Tour since November.

He lives in London and has slowly increased his PGA Tour starts, going from 12 in 2014 to 16 in 2015 and 18 last year, and he has already made 12 starts this season.

Molinari only travels to the U.S. to play, then returns to London. He has been considering purchasing a home in the U.S., but his oldest of two children is 6 and is enrolled in school.

“I’m thinking about moving over here but I’ve got a wife and two kids and my oldest is in school,” Molinari said. “It’s not that easy. I can’t say, ‘Okay everybody, let’s move,’ and just go. But it would be beneficial for me with the travel, for sure.”

Molinari started the season with a pair of top-six finishes in the fall and added a tie for seventh in the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March and sits 31st in 2016-17 FedExCup points with seven top-20 finishes.

He’s been pleased with his ball-striking this year, and worked extensively on his putting to tune up for the Wells Fargo and Players Championship next week after returning to London after starts in the Masters and RBC Heritage.

“I worked on the putting a lot the last couple weeks and it paid off today,” Molinari said.

Molinari made eight birdies against two bogeys Thursday, and chipped in twice, on the fifth and 18th holes.

“It was a great round,” he said. “On 18 I couldn’t really see from the fairway where the ball finished or I was worried it was going to be in the second cut, and I was happy when I saw it was in the first cut and it was makable for sure. But it came out just perfect and it was a great way to end up the day.”

Molinari is trying to join his brother as tournament winners in the past month. Eduardo Molinari won the Trophee Hassan II in Morocco on April 16 in a playoff over Paul Dunne for his third European Tour victory but first since 2010. “It was great to see him win. He's had a pretty tough time the last few seasons,” Molinari said.

Scoring was good at Eagle Point on Thursday, as 80 players shot par or better. Greens were a little more receptive than in practice rounds.

“They definitely watered them some,” Johnson said. “They’re still firm but they’re definitely a little more receptive.”

Thunderstorms and winds of 20 mph were expected overnight Thursday and through much of the morning Friday before the weather was predicted to clear for the remainder of the weekend.

“It's a course that can change completely if the direction of the wind changes. We're going to play a different course tomorrow,” Molinari said. “So I just have to keep doing my things, keep hitting good shots, keep giving myself chances and try to save par if I miss the green. We'll see how it goes. I think it's going to be windy all week, not only tomorrow, so I'm looking forward to the challenge.”

Alan Blondin: 843-626-0284, @alanblondin

Top 10 Leaderboard

Place

Name

Score

1

Francesco Molinari

66

T2

J.B. Holmes

67

T2

Grayson Murray

67

T2

Brian Campbell

67

T2

Alex Noren

67

T6

Ben Martin

68

T6

Ken Duke

68

T6

Seamus Power

68

T9

Shawn Stefani

69

T9

Seung-Yul Noh

69

T9

Chris Kirk

69

T9

Jon Rahm

69

T9

Rafa Cabrera Bello

69

T9

Jonathan Randolph

69

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