If you were to pick a highlight from the whirlwind 12 months enjoyed by Francesco Molinari from May 2018 what’s your preference? Was it when he finally turned superb Wentworth course form into victory at the BMW Championship or his maiden win on the PGA Tour at the Quicken Loans National? Both were wonderful performances but clearly topped by his lifting of the Claret Jug at Carnoustie and leading Europe to Ryder Cup triumph in Paris. (And we’ll perhaps draw a veil over the near miss that ended the run – when he played bridesmaid to Tiger Woods at the 2019 Masters.)
It is, however, easy to overlook his other win in that stretch, in the Arnold Palmer Invitational four years ago. Easy but wrong because he earned it with a startling final round that was a massive outlier in the tournament’s 21st century history.
Of the other 22 winners no less than 21 were tied third or better at this stage of the event and the exception was last year’s winner Scottie Scheffler who was tied fourth and only two shots back of the lead. All 22 played in the last three groups out in the final round.
By somewhat outrageous comparison, Molinari was T17th, five shots back and in the 11th last group out when he thrashed a 64 that set a clubhouse target no one could match – in fact he ended the week two strokes clear of Matt Fitzpatrick who had been the pre-round leader. It was a sensational effort from the Italian who not only overcame those above him with 18 holes to play but also a course that is now routinely set up as a brutal weekend test featuring rock-hard greens that are hard to hold with approaches in blustery wind, difficult to chip close on from the thick rough around them and nasty to putt on.
We can expect more of the same this Sunday and each of the top six addressed conditions after their third round.
The pace-setter is Kurt Kitayama on 9-under 207. The American landed two wins on the DP World Tour in blustery wind with the second of them (the 2019 Oman Open) being especially rough. More recently he has registered four top three finishes on the PGA Tour – starting with last year’s Honda Classic – but his most recent experience of contending saw him tumble from second to T29th in the final round at Pebble Beach. He can grind but he also has elite golfers in his rearview mirror.
A shot back is the defending champion Scottie Scheffler who stealthily made birdie at the last three holes in his third round. He argued that last year’s conditions were tougher than this year, but he was also on guard. “We’ll see what tomorrow’s like,” he said. “It depends what they do to the golf course.” Asked if officials will stick it to the field he replied: “I would be surprised if they didn’t.”
Viktor Hovland (Ben Coley’s headline tip pre-tournament) might be hoping that officials do not replicate the past. He carded a superb Saturday 66 to sit alongside Scheffler setting up a repeat of the Sunday battle the pair had 12 months ago when he finished second. But the Norwegian also averaged 74.00 in Bay Hill weekend rounds prior to this year and said last night: “The first two days usually play really well then they kind of go overboard on the weekend. But this week I think they have done a really good job of keeping the greens not too slick. If you hit good shots you can get them to stick.”
A further shot in arrears and alone in fourth is another former winner, the Englishman Tyrrell Hatton, who also added a third round 66. He then argued that his fine Bay Hill record (he’s also been second and fourth) is a consequence of a high degree of comfort in wind and, “generally my irons have a little bit more spin than tour average and that helps when the greens get crazy firm.”
Sharing fifth, and making up the third last group out, are yet another former winner, Rory McIlroy, and Harris English on 6-under. The former has bounced back from two flat efforts in Scottsdale and LA by identifying an alignment issue and views this examination in US Open terms: “That’s sort of how it feels with the thick rough, firm greens and tricky conditions.”
The Northern Irishman has seven finishes of T13th or better in the event and claimed his win here in 2018 with a final round 64 but one reason why the second win has been elusive is that he’s needed 76 blows in the final round in each of his last three visits.
English is still battling back from injury and it has proved a slog. He was T12th at Riviera but that’s his best effort since opening the season with ninth in the Fortinet Championship and ninth in 2020 is his best Bay Hill finish in 10 visits. He likes it tough though. “I just like grinding,” he said after his third round. “I don’t mind missing greens and using my short game.” He then became wonderfully vivid, talking of relishing the battle and “putting the mouthpiece in”, then saying that thinking your way around a golf course “is more like a chess match” and more fun than “a birdiefest that is more like you’re playing darts”.
Ben has another two tips in the top 10, Jordan Spieth and Cameron Young, and both can close in on the places. Can they win? Yes but they’ll need something akin to peak Molinari 2018/19.
Scheffler is understandably favourite at 9/4 with Hovland 4/1 followed by Kitayama at 13/2 and McIlroy 7/1. Hatton can be backed at 15/2 and English 33/1.
Scheffler is in a great place and taking a cheerful approach to the way in which he seems to be repeating his 2022 exploits. But the one that catches my eye is McIlroy. That nasty habit of taking 76 on Sunday is awkward but if anyone can shrug it off, I’d take him to do so. If asked the question I suspect he’d just reference the 64. He was out of sync in those two recent starts and also when carding 73 on Thursday but since sorting his lines he’s played excellent golf. If he’s back to the McIlroy who polished off the Tour Championship, CJ Cup and Dubai Desert Classic in recent months he can contend.
Posted at 0940 GMT on 05/03/23
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