Pro Golf Weekly

Francesco Molinari Closes With 64 to Capture the Arnold Palmer Invitational

Played at iconic Bay Hill Club and Lodge for the past 40 years, the Arnold Palmer Invitational has consistently seen exhilarating late-Sunday drama, typically with a superfluity of A-list golfers sparring down the stretch, desperately vying to have their name forever associated with the legendary man whose name makes up the title of the event.

This was not one of those years.

Francesco Molinari Wins Arnold Palmer Invitational
Francesco Molinari tees off on the 16th hole during the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill Club on Mar 10, 2019 in Orlando, FL. Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images

Bay Hill was a one-man show on Sunday this year, as reigning Open Champion Francesco Molinari absolutely obliterated the API field to the tune of a tournament-low 8-under 64, winning by two strokes over 54-hole leader Matthew Fitzpatrick.

Ranked 10th in the world at the beginning of the week, the 36-year-old from Italy has been firmly on the golf world’s radar for some time, but Molinari was still something of an afterthought through three rounds, as he was in a tie for 17th place, five strokes behind at an event where the low scores are not really that low.

But Molinari was THE show on Sunday. His bogey-free round comprised of four birdies on each side, and having started so far back, when he sunk a stunning 44-foot putt on the famous 18th green, the final pairing was two hours away from being finished. Challenger after challenger finished their rounds, but in the clubhouse at 12-under, nobody was able to get closer than two strokes behind him late.

It was a phenomenal final round for Molinari, who had been playing underwhelming golf since the calendar turned to 2019, at least in comparison to his ridiculous 2018 season, which included three wins worldwide, the Open Championship at Carnoustie the most notable, and two additional runner-ups. He is “back,” if he was ever really gone in the first place, given that he’d only made three official PGA Tour starts on the new season.

The heavily-international final leaderboard featured no Americans in the top five, the first time that has happened on the PGA Tour since the 2010 Open Championship. Among those high-finishing international players was Fitzpatrick, who shot a 1-under 71 to finish in solo-second place, 36-hole co-leader Tommy Fleetwood (T3), and first round leader Rafa Cabrera Bello (T3).

Defending champion Rory McIlroy finished in a tie for sixth place after shooting an even-par 72 on Sunday, but sitting in the runner-up slot coming into the day, more was expected, and despite a plethora of recent high finishes, the four-time major champion finds himself the target of criticism for a surprising inability to close events.


FINAL TOP-10 FINISHERS

Pos-Player-Score (Final Rd)
1. Francesco Molinari -12 (-8)
2. Matthew Fitzpatrick -10 (-1)
3. Sungjae Im -9 (-4)
3. Tommy Fleetwood -9 (-4)
3. Rafa Cabrera Bello -9 (-3)
6. Keith Mitchell -8 (-6)
6. Sung Kang -8 (-4)
6. Matt Wallace -8 (-1)
6. Rory McIlroy -8 (E)
10. Adam Long -7 (-5)
10. Byeong Hun An -7 (-4)
10. Lucas Glover -7 (-3)
10. Jason Kokrak -7 (-2)
10. Luke List -7 (-1)

OTHER NOTABLES

15. Charles Howell III -6
17. Henrik Stenson, Bubba Watson -5
23. Ian Poulter, Marc Leishman -4
33. Hideki Matsuyama, Martin Kaymer -3
40. Zach Johnson, Aaron Wise, Rickie Fowler -1
46. Bryson DeChambeau, Keegan Bradley E
50. Patrick Reed, Billy Horschel +1
58. Jimmy Walker, Steve Stricker +4
63. Justin Rose +5


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HOW FRANCESCO MOLINARI WON THE ARNOLD PALMER INVITATIONAL

In his past six starts worldwide, Molinari had not finished better than T17, and sitting five-strokes back at 4-under-par, he appeared to be on his way to a similar finish.

Francesco Molinari
Francesco Molinari reacts after making a putt for birdie on the 18th green during the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational at the Bay Hill Club on Mar 10, 2019 in Orlando, FL. Photo by Richard Heathcote/Getty Images

It did not take Molinari long to flash major form, however, as he birdied the first and third holes to make an early push at Fitzpatrick, another European Tour regular, who was attempting to win his first PGA Tour event.

Molinari added birdies on Nos. 6 and 8 to make the turn on 4-under par, and was even more brilliant on the back. After carding consecutive birdies on Nos. 12 and 13, Molinari suddenly found himself tied for the lead. He had to settle for birdie on 16 after very nearly posting an eagle on the par-5, but between that, and his impressive birdie on the closing hole, with the flag-in, Molinari captured a two-stroke clubhouse advantage that was barely challenged by the lead packs.

In an immaculate display of accuracy, Molinari hit 12 of 14 fairways on Sunday, in addition to 14 of 18 greens in regulation. Placing himself in so many advantageous positions, Molinari gained 4.2 strokes on the field with his putting.

For the week, he led the field in strokes gained: off-the-tee, was fourth in strokes gained: putting, and was third in driving accuracy. His eight Sunday birdies was just one fewer than he had carded over the first three rounds combined.

MOLINARI’S FINAL STATS

Driving: 294.7 yards (36th)
Fairways: 43/56, 76.8% (3rd)
Greens: 48/72, 66.7% (6th)
Putts: 1.708 (18th)
Scoring: 1 Eagle, 17 Birdies, 48 Pars, 5 Bogeys, 1 Double


WHAT IT MEANS FOR MOLINARI

The victory at Arnie’s Place allowed Molinari to rise from 10th to 7th in the world rankings, just two places short of his career-best, achieved last fall.

Francesco Molinari Wins Arnold Palmer Invitational
Francesco Molinari holds the trophy after winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill Club on Mar 10, 2019 in Orlando, FL. Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images

He had been somewhat struggling to live to the standard he set with his incredible 2018, which, in addition to three victories, also included a record 5-0 performance for the winning European Ryder Cup team, but at least for one day, he had his best stuff again.

The victory earned Molinari $1,638,000 and 500 FedExCup points to move from 142nd to 20th in the PGA Tour’s points standings.

The 36-year old Italian has shown an ability to stay hot, particularly last year when he went on a WIN, 2, T25, WIN, T2, WIN, T39, T6 stretch over eight starts. That should place him among the favorites at next week’s PLAYERS Championship at TPC Sawgrass, an event where he placed in the top 10 in 2014, 2016, and 2017.

MOLINARI’S 2019 PGA TOUR SEASON

Starts: 4
Cuts Made: 4
Wins: 1 (Arnold Palmer Invitational)
Top 10s: 0
Money: $1,884,250 (13th)
Points: 598 (20th)
World Rank Before/After: 10th/7th


SUNDAY’S STARS AT BAY HILL

Molinari might have been THE star in round four, but there were a number of other players in the field who closed tremendously on a modestly-difficult scoring day, where the field average was around an even-par 72.

Tommy Fleetwood
Tommy Fleetwood and caddie Ian Finnis follow his shot on the 1st hole during the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill Club on Mar 10, 2019 in Orlando, FL. Photo by David Cannon/Getty Images

Tommy Fleetwood had a four-stroke co-36-hole lead, but had torpedoed his championship hopes after a third-round 4-over 76. The Englishman was back to his Thursday and Friday self on Sunday, reversing his Saturday with a 4-under 68 to finish T3.

Only three players were lower on Sunday. The closest man to Molinari’s Sunday 64 was American Keith Mitchell, who birdied four of his first five holes and finished with a 6-under 66, allowing him to rise 26 spots up the final leaderboard, into a tie for 6th.

The high finish was especially impressive for Mitchell, given that he captured his first career victory the week prior at the Honda Classic. His 21 birdies for the week was the best in the field.

Also vaulting up the leaderboard after a stellar Sunday was Adam Long, who had two back-nine eagles on his way to a 5-under 67. His T10 snapped a streak of five straight missed cuts, which started the week after he shockingly won the Desert Classic January. He has just three made cuts in 11 starts this year, but two of those three were top-10s.


SUNDAY’S STUMBLES

McIlroy’s sixth-place finish at Bay Hill makes a fifth consecutive start inside the top-6, but the man who blitzed the field down the Sunday stretch to win a year ago, disappointed with an even-par 72 that included just two birdies.

Rory McIlroy
Rory McIlroy tees off from the 16th during the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill Club on Mar 10, 2019 in Orlando, FL. Photo by Keyur Khamar/Getty Images via PGA TOUR

McIlroy had been just one stroke behind Fitzpatricks 54-hole lead. Rory’s iron game was still solid on the final day, but his putting was a disaster, as he lost more than two strokes to the Sunday field on the greens. Surprisingly, Rory has not won anywhere since his 2018 API triumph, despite 12 top-10s since.

Kevin Kisner had been in a share of third place to begin the final day, but plummeted 20 spots down the leaderboard after a dismal 3-over 75. He had just one birdie and lost 2.5 strokes to the field with his approach shots. Kisner even bogeyed the par-5 16th, which had been playing very easy on Sunday.

The largest Sunday drop down the leaderboard came from Keegan Bradley, who bogeyed four of his first six holes on his way to a 6-over 78. The 36-hole co-leader dropped 40 places, from 6th to 46th.

After playing his first two rounds 67-68, a 75-78 weekend has him shaking his head.


OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP QUALIFYING

Keith Mitchell earned his first career trip to The Masters, with his victory a week ago and PGA National. Now, he has a spot at The Open Championship as well.

Keith Mitchell Open Qualifying Series
Keith Mitchell poses with the Claret Jug while holding a flag after qualifying for the Open Championship at the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill Club on Mar 10, 2019 in Orlando, FL. Photo by Michael Cohen/R&A/R&A via Getty Images

The Arnold Palmer Invitational was part of the Open Qualifying Series, and gave spots for this year’s edition at Royal Portrush to the highest three finishers inside the top 10 who had not already qualified.

The other two spots went to Sungjae Im, a 20-year-old who led the Web.com Tour money list last year, and Sung Kang, who finished T6 after a final round 4-under 68.


QUOTABLE

“Obviously super happy the way I did it today, I tried to be aggressive from the start and it was nice to see quite a lot of putts dropping for, especially for my standards. So I think it’s been the best putting round ever in my career.”
– Francesco Molinari, 2019 API Champion


FINAL SCORES, MONEY & POINTS

API | Bay Hill Club | Orlando, FL | Mar 7-10, 2019


FINAL-ROUND VIDEO HIGHLIGHTS

Final-round highlights of the 2019 Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill where Francesco Molinari made a Sunday charge, posting an 8-under 64 to reach 12-under and secure his third-career PGA Tour victory.


RELATED COVERAGE


Credits: Getty Images, PGA TOUR Media, ASAP Fastscripts, Callaway, Open Championship


Joel Cook

Joel Cook is Pro Golf Weekly's Lead Writer. He is a member of the Golf Writer's Association of America.

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