The Italian last won at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in 2019. A year later he finds himself forced to withdraw and his game in a very different place

When one triumphant Ryder Cup passes it’s almost impossible to move your thinking forward two years to the next one and accept the possibility that some of these heroes won’t be in position for the next renewal.

Time comes ticking for a few – maybe Sergio Garcia, Henrik Stenson, Paul Casey, Ian Poulter and even Justin Rose might come unstuck on this one – and a couple will fall away like Alex Noren and Thorbjorn Olesen.

But nobody would have suspected that Francesco Molinari would be under the cosh. Leaving Paris we had the first ever European to win all five matches, the cutest ever partnership with Tommy Fleetwood, and even further evidence that the Italian, who topped the qualifying for Thomas Bjorn’s team, was a genuine top-10 superstar.

Having Molinari at the top of the game was a very welcome addition to his more  muscular and more outspoken peers. The man was a machine. Of all the stats that tell you something about Molinari it was how he had learnt to slam the door shut on his rivals down the stretch. Here’s how he closed out his last four strokeplay wins, all in the space of 10 months.

And then Augusta happened. Plenty would give anything to get a Mulligan at the iconic 12th, who knows what it did to Jordan Spieth in 2016, and Molinari’s career has dipped, much like his ball, since that moment. Two shots clear of Tiger Woods, a solitary bogey in 54 holes and then it all unravelled.

Speaking in China six months after the Masters he explained that the “chippy 8-iron” at 12, and the subsequent wedge that also ended up wet three holes later, had provided the wrong sort of watershed in his season.

“When you lose a tournament or a game or something like that, it takes a toll mentally,” Molinari explained. “I was coming through an extended period of a few months where things were, most of the time, going my way.

“Then I tried to do the same things after that – keep pushing and keep improving, day by day – but I don’t know. Something obviously changed that week.”

Come the end of the season in Dubai Molinari explained that the robotic swing was also letting him down.

“There’s definitely some technical issues in the swing that it’s a bit uncharacteristic maybe for me. But I’ve hit some pretty poor shots in the last few months, and so yeah, we are working on it. You know, golf takes time unfortunately to figure out what exactly is going wrong.”

Things change and Molinari has switched caddies to Mark Fulcher, Rose’s former long-time sidekick, for this season. The WGC in Mexico was the first time Molinari has played four rounds this year – though that is only because there wasn’t a halfway cut.

Otherwise the stats suggest there is work to do in all parts of his game:

  • Strokes Gained Off the Tee: 181st
  • Strokes Gained Approach to the Green: 192nd
  • Strokes Gained Tee to Green: 204th
  • Strokes Gained Around the Green: 140th
  • Strokes Gained Putting: 188th
  • Strokes Gained Total: 210th

He’s also now down to 26th in the world.

On paper Molinari’s game looks to have fallen off a bit of a cliff, relatively speaking. On the flip side less than a year ago he was coming from five shots and 11 groups back to win with a closing 64 at Bay Hill.

His much-anticipated defence, and return to some happier memories, sadly never took place as he had to withdraw with a back injury.

A small insight into his psyche and attitude is that before Le Golf National he had yet to register a full point. Then, despite playing with a back injury for much of it, he delivered five of them.

“I didn’t tell Thomas,” Molinari said. “It wasn’t enough to really compromise my golf. So I just started taking some anti-inflammatories. It’s a week that you’re sort of pumped up with adrenaline, anyway, that you could probably play on one leg.”

The following morning he was unable to tie his own shoelaces.

Molinari has been a pro since 2004 and in any career there are peaks and troughs. He’s done the really hard yards getting to the top of the game. Now he just has to remember how he did it.

Follow NCG on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.