Francesco Molinari became the first Italian golfer to collect a major last year when he won the Open Championship. This year, Molinari, 36, defends the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth Club in Surrey, England. He talked about defensive golf play, his record playing at Wentworth and how Italian golfers have it better than soccer players. The following conversation has been edited and condensed.
Last year, you said the BMW was the biggest win of your career. Why is that?
I think it was because of the way it came, playing in almost a match play sort of way with Rory McIlroy. Also, I was just coming off a year of where I was playing well, but I wasn’t converting my good weeks into wins. It was a win that just felt different from my previous wins.
McIlroy kept the heat on you until the very end, where you beat him by two strokes. How did you handle that pressure?
I was definitely feeling the pressure. Obviously when you have someone like Rory chasing you, it’s never over until the last hole. I always had that in the back of my mind to keep pushing and keep staying in front of all the players by as many shots as possible. I felt like I was playing well. When I birdied the 12th hole, I think I had a four-shot lead. When you lead by four with six holes to go, you really just have to focus on just doing the job of bringing it in and not making any easy mistakes.
That’s when your mind-set switches, when you need to close out the tournament. You can drop shots pretty easily at that point, and you’re aware of that. The first part of the round we were tied, I think. But when you have the lead, you naturally switch to defensive play and try not to give anything away, especially when you are playing someone like Rory who can easily make birdies. And those last two holes are reachable par 5s. If there’s anyone in the world who can finish with two eagles, it’s definitely Rory. You never really feel comfortable until it’s over.
Only three players have successfully defended at Wentworth. What will it take for you to become the fourth?
Wow. I didn’t know that. That gives you an idea of how tough it is. It’s going to be a stronger field this year with the new date. I don’t want to sound too simple, but I just need to play my best golf. Anything less than that against this strong field won’t do it — it’s not going to be enough. I finished my U.S. season one week earlier, so I had time at home to work and get ready for a busy end of the season, especially Wentworth. Hopefully, I can show up and play some good golf and get some confidence. Wentworth is a place where I love to play and have a pretty incredible record, even before last year. I can’t wait to work those fairways again. But I know it won’t be obviously easy to win again.
You came in second in 2017, won last year and placed in several top 10s. What is it about Wentworth that works for you?
It’s a combination of things — the course and the crowd. The course is one of my favorites. It suits my game. It’s pretty tough from tee to green. You need to position the ball really well. It’s not a course you can play very well from off the rough. It’s also a special tournament for me. Like most Europeans, I remember growing up and watching Nick Faldo and Seve Ballesteros playing. It gives me a special feeling when I get there. There are not many courses that are like that, to play on a course that you remember from your teenage years watching on your TV.
On a personal note, does it bother you that soccer players get more adoration than golfers in Italy?
After last year, I get stopped a lot more often and get asked for autographs and pictures. It’s the recognition of the results I’ve had and things I’ve accomplished in the last two years. And it feels nice. I love it when it’s young kids. Part of what I do is because I was that young kid looking up to Costantino Rocca and all the Italian players that were on tour. It’s great to know that I’m doing the same now with the younger generations.
But I’m not the kind of guy who looks for too much public attention. Footballers get a lot of love, but they also get a lot of hate as well when they don’t play well. Italians are very passionate about sports. Football is a tough sport to be in. I’d rather golf.