Orlando, Fla. – Francesco Molinari had seen so many clutch birdie putts on the 18th green at Bay Hill, most of them by Tiger Woods in the final group, usually with Arnold Palmer standing next to the green expecting like everyone else for them go in.
It was Molinari’s turn Sunday in the Arnold Palmer Invitational, with a few big differences.
This putt was from 45 feet, longer than anything Woods ever made. And while it capped off an 8-under 64 and eventually gave Molinari a two-shot victory, the British Open champion had to wait nearly two hours to see if his score would hold up.
One more difference.
“I was the first to make it with the flag in,” Molinari said with a big smile, alluding to a new rule that allows the flag stick to stay in the cup with putts on the green.
All that mattered was that it dropped, capping off a five-shot rally with a final round no one imagined on a fast Bay Hill course with putting surfaces that looked closer to white than green, making it difficult for anyone to get it close to the hole.
“He’s obviously holed a lot of putts to do that because you can’t get close to these pins,” Matt Fitzpatrick, the 54-hole leader, said after a 71 to finish second. “There’s no way he’s knocked it to 6 feet on every hole. But he played very, very well to shoot that, and hat’s off to him.”
Fitzpatrick managed only two birdies, the same number as Rory McIlroy (72), who played in the final group for the third time in five starts this year without winning. McIlroy’s downfall was the par 5s – for his second shots, he had 5-iron, 3-iron, 4-iron and wedge into the green. He played the four par 5s in 1 under.
“I’m playing well,” McIlroy said after a tie for sixth, his worst finish this year. “My Sundays haven’t been what I would have liked, but I’m putting myself in that position. So good golf is good golf.”
Molinari delivered the highest quality on a day that required nothing less. His five-shot comeback was the largest at Bay Hill since Woods in 2009, which he won with a birdie from 15 feet on the 18th hole. He played the final 28 holes on this fiery course without a bogey.
Only three of his eight birdie putts were inside 10 feet. Along with the 45-footer at the end, he holed a 20-foot birdie putt to start his round, an 18-footer that gave him the lead for the first time and he chipped in from 10 yards off the green at No. 8.
And he ended it with a charge that would have made Arnie proud, and with the putt that has become familiar.
“Coming from Italy, we weren’t exposed to that much golf,” Molinari said. “Obviously, 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. So it’s still a bit unreal to think that I’ve done kind of the same today.”
Molinari finished at 12-under 276, his fourth victory in his last 17 starts over nine months.
No one got closer than two shots the whole time he was in the locker room watching the back nine, which was harder than he made his golf look.
Perhaps it was only fitting that the claret jug was at Bay Hill, which served as part of the Open Qualifying Series. Sung Kang also had a big putt on the 18th hole, this one from 12 feet for par that sewed up the third and final spot offered for the British Open at Royal Portrush this summer.
The other two spots went to Sungjae Im, the 20-year-old South Korean who closed with a 68 and tied for third; and Honda Classic winner Keith Mitchell, who made eight birdies in his final round of 66 to tie for sixth.
Tommy Fleetwood, who shared the 36-hole lead at Bay Hill, recovered from a 76 that knocked him out of contention by closing with a 68 to join Im at 9-under 279 along with Rafa Cabrera Bello (69).
“I was just trying to hit good shots, give myself chances,” Molinari said. “I knew it was not going to be easy. The course was firm and fast yesterday and I knew it wasn’t going to be easy for the guys in the lead, so I thought there was an outside chance. And yeah, just started making putts, one of my best putting rounds ever.”
Molinari pointed to the first of his last four victories for sparking his turnaround. He played in the final round of the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth tied with McIlroy, closed with a 68 and won by two.
“It’s hard to point a finger at one thing,” Molinari said. “I think obviously confidence has to do a lot with it. 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.”
And he did.
Molinari closed with a 62 to blow away the field in the Quicken Loans National. He played bogey-free on the final day at Carnoustie for his first major. He became the first European to win all five matches at the Ryder Cup. And he delivered a masterpiece at Arnie’s place.
Fran Quinn birdied three of the final holes in breezy conditions at Newport Beach, California, for a 4-under 67 and a three-stroke lead in the PGA Tour Champions’ Hoag Classic.
Tied for the first-round lead with Scott McCarron after a 64 in strong wind Friday, Quinn rebounded from a bogey on the par-4 14th with birdies on the par-5 15th, par-3 17th and par-5 18th at Newport Beach Country Club.
The 53-year-old Massachusetts player had an 11-under 131 total. He’s winless on the 50-and-over tour after winning four times on the Web.com Tour and twice on the Asian Tour.
David Toms and Australia’s David McKenzie were tied for second. Toms had his second straight 67, and McKenzie shot 66.
Kirk Triplett (65), Esteban Toledo (65) and Woody Austin (67) were 7 under. McCarron was another stroke back after a 72.
Newport Beach resident Fred Couples was 4 under after a 70.
Vijay Singh skipped his title defense to play in the PGA Tour’s Arnold Palmer Invitational. Bernhard Langer is sidelined by an injury to his rib and stomach area.
Oliver Wilson of England grabbed the sole lead of the Qatar Masters by shooting a 3-under 69 in the third round at Doha despite making his first bogey of the tournament.
Wilson finished with a birdie on the 18th for a 10-under total of 206, putting him one shot clear of a quartet of players that included second-round leader Mike Lorenzo-Vera of France, who shot a 71.
In windy conditions throughout the week, Wilson had managed two flawless rounds before making a bogey on the par-4 fifth hole on Saturday in a round that also included four birdies.
“It’s really hard to get it close even from the fairways with the wind,” said Wilson, who is looking for his second European Tour title. “There’s still a long way to go but it’s going in the right direction. It’s nice to be back in the mix. I didn’t play very well today, I struggled a little bit, I didn’t feel comfortable with my swing but I managed to keep it in play and hit some good shots when I needed to.”
Nick Cullen of Australia (68), Spaniard Nacho Elvira (69) and South Africa’s Erik van Rooyen (70) were tied with Lorenzo-Vera on 9 under.
South African duo George Coetzee and Justin Harding, who shared the second-round lead with Lorenzo-Vera, fell back into a tie for 10th place after both carded a 73.
Jake McLeod of Australia made a hole-in-one on the third hole and finished with an eagle for a 6-under 66 that put him into a tie for sixth.