It might not have been the strongest field, but Francesco Molinari closed like a champion at TPC Potomac.
With a bogey-free 8-under 62, the long-time European Tour star from Italy finally landed in the winner’s circle for a PGA Tour event, transmuting a 54-hole co-lead into an 8-shot romp at the Quicken Loans National.
At No. 17 in the world, Molinari surprised many by playing Maryland this week, rather than teeing it up with his European contemporaries at the HNA Open De France, a high-payout Rolex Series event. But his decision was validated with a Sunday blowout, highlighted by a five-hole stretch on the inward nine, where he carded an eagle, followed by four-consecutive birdies en route to a low-round 62.
TPC Potomac looked like a brutal challenge last year when the winning score was just 7 under, but Molinari embarrassed the course-designers with a 21 under week where he played his final three rounds 65-65-62.
The closest man to the 35-year-old Italian was Ryan Armour, who finished at 13-under par, followed by South Korea’s Sung Kang at 12 under. The biggest name in the field, PGA Tour legend Tiger Woods, made himself part of the Sunday story with a 4-under 66 to finish T4, but was still ten strokes short of what could have been his first victory in five years.
FINAL TOP 10
1. Francesco Molinari -21 (-8)
2. Ryan Armour -13 (-2)
2. Sung-hoon Kang -12 (-6)
4. Tiger Woods -11 (-4)
4. Abraham Ancer -11 (+2)
6. Bronson Burgoon -10 (-3)
6. Beau Hossler -10 (-2)
8. Ryan Palmer -9 (-3)
8. Brian Gay -9 (-2)
8. Chesson Hadley -9 (-2)
8. Andrew Landry -9 (+1)
12. Rickie Fowler -8 (-3)
13. Marc Leishman -7 (E)
17. Joaquin Niemann -6 (-5)
17. Billy Horschel -6 (-1)
23. Stewart Cink -5 (-1)
32. Kyle Stanley -3 (+3)
32. Jimmy Walker +2 (E)
1st – $1,260,000 (Francesco Molinari)
2nd – $766,800 (Ryan Armour)
3rd – $482,800 (Sung Kang)
4th – $312,400 (Abraham Ancer)
4th – $312,400 (Tiger Woods)
HOW FRANCESCO MOLINARI WON
At No. 17 in the world rankings, only No. 8 Rickie Fowler was ranked higher among those in the Quicken Loans field, so the younger of the European Tour’s Molinari brothers was a popular pick to triumph in Maryland this week.
An opening-round 3-under 67 was a good start, and even better considering it was his worst round of the week. After playing the middle rounds in 65-65, Molinari made Sunday’s final pairing with another man looking for his first PGA Tour victory, Mexico’s Abraham Ancer.
No doubt struggling with nerves, Ancer, who had shot a 62 on Saturday, carded a bogey on the first hole, giving Molinari a lead he would never lose.
Staying slightly out in front, Molinari made his biggest move on the par-5 10th hole, sinking a 48-foot eagle putt to get four strokes out front. Then, playing the next four holes, birdie-birdie-birdie-birdie, Molinari put a large exclamation point on his round, winning by a season record-tying eight strokes.
Amazingly, Molinari had just two bogeys for the entire week, easily leading the field. He was also No. 1 for the week in strokes gained: approach-the-green, strokes gained: tee-to-green, strokes gained: total, scrambling and greens in regulation. His week epitomized domination.
Driving: 300.9 yards (35th)
Fairways: 42/56, 74.6% (4th)
Greens: 62/72, 86.1% (1st)
Putts Per GIR: 1.66 (17th)
Par-3 Scoring: -4 (4 Birdies, 12 Pars)
Par-4 Scoring: -11 (13 Birdies, 33 Pars, 2 Bogeys)
Par-5 Scoring: -6 (1 Eagle, 4 Birdies, 3 Pars)
Aggregate Scoring: -21 (1 Eagle, 21 Birdies, 48 Pars, 2 Bogeys)
WHAT IT MEANS FOR MOLINARI
Molinari had long been on the PGA Tour radar, particularly when he finished co-runner up at last year’s PGA Championship at Quail Hollow, but until today he’d not tasted victory on the world’s most prestigious Tour.
He had won five times in his European Tour career, including just one month ago when he bettered Rory McIlroy by two strokes at the BMW PGA Championship, Europe’s flagship event. Many were shocked by his decision to play this week’s PGA Tour event, as opposed to the French Open – a European Tour Rolex Series event, where he finished runner-up just two years ago.
Molinari has a reputation as a tee-to-green wizard, and coming into the week, he was No. 2 on Tour in strokes gained: tee-to-green, trailing only world No. 1 Dustin Johnson. He more than looked worthy of that reputation at TPC Potomac, hitting 75% of his fairways, ranking fourth in the field, and 86% of his greens, which ranked first.
He will likely be a popular pick at this month’s Open Championship at Carnoustie.
Nobody looked worthy of lacing up their cleats on the same course as Molinari on Sunday, but several of those who made the field at least looked good in round four.
The closest anyone came to Molinari’s 8-under 62 was Sung Kang, who jumped from 16th to 3rd on the final leaderboard with a bogey-free 6-under 64. The solo-third was the best 2018 season finish for the South Korean, who is still looking for his first PGA Tour victory.
Matching Kang’s 64 was Doc Redman, who went out early on Sunday and moved up 37 positions, after having started the day at 3-over. The 64, which began with an eagle-2 on the par-4 first hole, led to the best finish of Redman’s very young PGA Tour career.
To the surprise of nobody, 19-year-old Chilean phenom Joaquin Niemann put himself in the Sunday conversation, shooting a 5-under 65 that moved him 32 spots up the final leaderboard. In his 7th event since turning professional, Niemann’s T17 was his first finish that was not either a top-10 or a missed cut.
Despite a 62 in the third round, Abraham Ancer knew he would have his work cut out for him on Sunday, coming into the day as the event’s co-leader.
Just one day after an eight-birdie Saturday, Ancer failed to notch even a single gain on Sunday.
With 16 pars and two bogeys, Ancer fell from T1 to T4, but still posted his first top-5 finish in what has been a tremendous rookie season.
As tough of a go as the final round was for Ancer, it was much, much tougher for Zac Blair, who had not posted as much as a top-40 finish since last October.
Blair came into the day in third place, and was looking to make big strides in securing his 2019 PGA Tour card, but after an abysmal 7-over 77, Blair dropped to T27, and still ranks just 173rd in the FedExCup Standings.
The worst round of the day, however, came from Jamie Lovemark, who shot a 12-over 82 on Sunday, dropping him to 74th on the final leaderboard, the worst showing among those who made the cut.
Lovemark may have had the worst five-hole stretch of the PGA Tour season when he carded three straight bogeys on 7, 8, and 9, and then started his back nine triple-bogey, quintuple-bogey.
TIGER’S SUNDAY SURGE
Tiger Woods is the most popular player in the field when he tees up at majors. In a field like this, there is no word to describe how much more beloved he is than anyone else.
After a few poor finishes due to a bulky putter, Tiger appeared to get back on track at the Quicken Loans National, an event where he acts as the tournament host.
Tiger’s six Sunday birdies, which gave him a field co-high 21 for the week, catalyzed a 4-under 66 that moved him to T4 on the final leaderboard.
Perhaps most promising for Tiger was that he finished T7 for the week in strokes gained: putting. Tiger now has three top-5 finishes in 11 events this season.
TICKETS TO CARNOUSTIE
The Open Championship granted spots to the top-four players on the final Quicken Loans National leaderboard, who had not already qualified.
The first spot went to runner-up Ryan Armour, with the other three awarded to Kang, Ancer, and Bronson Burgoon, who finished T6 after a Sunday 67.
VIDEO: FINAL-ROUND HIGHLIGHTS
“Amazing. Amazing. I still have to realize what happened today, but it was a lot easier than I thought, and I played great; the start to the back-nine was incredible. I’m really proud of what I have done and I hope a lot of guys back home were watching tonight.”
– Francesco Molinari