By Dave Shedloski
Another edition of the Arnold Palmer Invitational ended in a manner that would have made Arnie smile.
The Palmer Charge still works, even when someone else executes it. With a bogey-free 8-under-par 64 on Sunday here at Bay Hill Club and Lodge, Italy’s Francesco Molinari captured the 41st edition of Mr. Palmer’s elite invitational, finishing at 12-under 276 to beat Matthew Fitzpatrick of England by two strokes.
The reigning holder of the Claret Jug for winning last year’s Open Championship at Carnoustie, in Scotland, Molinari began the final round five strokes behind Fitzpatrick and finished the day with his fourth worldwide win in the last 10 months and his third victory on the PGA TOUR.
“Obviously, super happy about the way I did it today … and it’s nice to do it in those circumstances at Arnie’s place,” said Molinari, 36, who last July won his first TOUR title the Quicken Loans National with a closing 62.
“It's phenomenal,” Fitzpatrick said of Molinari’s play. “He obviously holed a lot of putts to do that because you can't get close to these pins. There's no way that he's knocked it to six feet on every hole, the greens were so firm and fast. But he played very, very well to shoot that and hat's off to him.”
Molinari, the fifth straight international winner at Bay Hill since American Matt Every won his second in a row on the Championship Course in 2015, is the second player in as many years to shoot 64 in the last round to win Palmer’s tournament, following in the footsteps of Rory McIlroy, who had a chance to become the fourth man to win consecutive titles on Bay Hill’s Championship Course, but came up short with a final round 72 to tie for sixth place.
Fitzpatrick, the 2013 U.S. Amateur champion, shot 71 for second place at 278.
Tommy Fleetwood, Rafael Cabrera Bello and Sungjae Im tied for third place at 9-under 279. For the first time, the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard offered three spots into The Open Championship, which this year will be held at Royal Portrush in July in Northern Ireland. Im, Keith Mitchell and Sung Kang won the spots. Mitchell and Kang were part of a large group tied for sixth with McIlroy.
Molinari is one of only four men in the last three years to shoot 64 or lower in the final round four times, joining Justin Thomas, Brooks Koepka and Gary Woodland. He was one of just nine players in the 123-man field to have a bogey-free round. That list included Arnold Palmer’s grandson Sam Saunders, who had a bogey-free 68 in Round 2. Saunders ended up T-63 in his 10th appearance.
“I know that I can shoot low scores pretty much on every golf course, yeah,” said Molinari, who was the star for the European Team in last year’s Ryder Cup, going 5-0 to become the first European player to post a perfect record. “I'm not scared to say that, or I'm not shy of confidence in that way.
“It’s hard to point a finger at one thing,” he added, speaking of his recent surge of good play that has lifted him to No. 7 in the Official World Golf Ranking. “It’s obviously confidence has to do with a lot of it,” Molinari said. “When I won last year, playing with Rory in the last few groups, it wasn't easy at all. So, from there I started building my confidence and just saying I could get it done.
“I'm not scared about going out on the golf course playing against anyone, but it's just really hard for me to picture myself where I am at the moment,” he admitted.
Molinari wasn’t flawless on Sunday, but he was darn close. Among the highlights was a flop shot from left of the eighth green from 44 feet that found the cup for birdie, and a remarkable putt on the home hole of nearly the same distance that had him punching the air in excitement a la Tiger Woods. Add the hole-in-one at the par-3 seventh he tallied in the first round, and you have the makings of a victory flush with hero shots.
Which is often what it takes these days. J.B. Holmes’ triumph last month at the Genesis Open similarly was fueled by an ace in an earlier round. Before Holmes did it, no one had won on TOUR with a hole-in-one since Dustin Johnson four years earlier at the 2015 WGC-Mexico Championship.
Molinari enjoyed putting on the red sweater that goes to the champion, and he also enjoyed being in Tiger’s shoes, if just for a fleeting moment.
“It’s a pretty iconic putt,” Molinari said of his monster birdie at the last. “I’m pretty sure I’m the first guy to make it with the flag in though, so that’s the real difference. Arnie was such a global icon, and this tournament was one that we watched, my brother and myself, at home many times – watching Tiger making that putt on 18. It's still a bit unreal to think that I've done kind of the same today.”