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Why the US team could be better off without Tiger - Francesco Molinari reveals his Ryder Cup obsession

Alex Perry
June 11, 2014
Tiger Woods, Francesco Molinari and the handshake that shocked the golfing world © Getty Images

With Europe already assured of retaining the Ryder Cup, Tiger Woods pulled a four-foot par putt wide and offered his opponent, Francesco Molinari, his congratulations. The match was over.

The handshake that was seen around the world thrust Molinari into Ryder Cup folklore forever and, driven by the desire to see the injury-plagued Woods in the US team, he wants the chance of a repeat in Scotland in September.

But Molinari is of the opinion Europe's bitter rivals might just be better off without their 14-time major champion.

"He might not be back in time for Gleneagles," Molinari tells ESPN after Woods underwent surgery in March. "But we can't forget that the Americans won the last time he wasn't on the team.

"So it could be a blessing in disguise for them."

World Cup hopes and Hammers

  • While the Ryder Cup and US Open remain targets for Francesco Molinari, the Italian, who now resides in London, will have one eye on his homeland's World Cup opener with England on Saturday.
  • "My money's on a draw," he tells ESPN. "Being the first match of the World Cup, I fear it will be quite a boring match.
  • "Both teams will try not to lose before trying to win - but hopefully Italy will go on and win.
  • "There are some really strong teams and it will be really hard for Italy to win the tournament.
  • "Brazil are a great team and have the home crowd behind them, while Argentina have the best player in the world.
  • "If Italy or England can get to the quarter-finals, that would be a decent result for either team."
  • Since moving to London, Inter Milan fanatic Molinari has adopted West Ham has his Premier League team of choice.
  • "At the time," he says, "Gianfranco Zola was manager of West Ham and my coach, Denis Pugh, supports them - as do a few other friends of mine in London."
  • He also had a few words of support for Sam Allardyce. "It was the right move to keep Sam on as manager. A club like West Ham, at the moment, cannot really aim for Champions League so it's about maintaining their place in the division and Allardyce has a good history of getting the result. It would be a big risk to make a change now."

Molinari's rivalry with Woods is a strange one and, thinking back to that balmy September afternoon, the Italian reveals that the moment which threw the pair together is all still a bit of a blur.

Both he and Woods watched on nervously as, a hundred yards or so in front of them, Martin Kaymer stood over a six-foot putt that would earn the 14th point for Jose Maria Olazabal's European team and retain the Samuel Ryder trophy.

As Kaymer's ball hit the bottom of the cup, Woods shook his head in disbelief. Molinari looked shell-shocked as Olazabal marched over to him. He was not prepared to settle for a draw; he smelt blood.

"I thought about giving him the half in the fairway," Molinari explains. "But then the captain was there and he told me it's not the same, winning or halving, so get focused and do your best and that's what I did."

In conceding the hole, Woods handed Molinari a half and, with it, a 15-and-a-half to 14-and-a-half victory to Europe.

"I wasn't expecting him to give it to me," adds Molinari, the slight stumble in his voice suggesting he still can't quite believe it.

It's moments like Molinari's Medinah match-up with Woods - the shock, the drama, the tears, both joy and despair - that keep players coming back for more. And while someone like Woods can give or take the Ryder Cup, for journeymen like Molinari it's a pinnacle goal.

"It's a unique chance that you get every two years to play in a really special atmosphere and environment," he says. "We don't get to play too many team events and certainly none as big as the Ryder Cup.

"Obviously after you experience it you want to go back but it's hard to make the team.

"It can become a bit of an obsession."

Molinari, who will celebrate his 32nd birthday shortly after the Ryder Cup draws to an end, has been a model of consistency since turning pro a decade ago. He made his breakthrough on home soil at the 2006 Italia Open against a moderate field, but it was four years later he really put his name on the golfing map.

At Celtic Manor, Molinari and elder brother Edoardo became just the fourth set of brothers to represent their team at the same Ryder Cup. Europe won, but by no means on the same scale as two years later, and Molinari only took half a point from a possible three.

A disappointing debut on a personal level, but just 34 days later Molinari was lifting by far his biggest title to date: the WGC-Champions.

Molinari qualified comfortably for the Ryder Cup at Medinah thanks to victory at the Open de Espana in 2012. However, while four top-10s grace his Tour record this season - including a tie for sixth at the PGA Tour's flagship event, the Players Championship, and a shared seventh at the European Tour's counterpart, the BMW PGA Championship - Molinari knows his place in Paul McGinley's side is far from a forgone conclusion.

"There are a lot of good players in Europe and a lot of guys who started the season very well. It won't be easy but obviously long term is that is one of the goals.

"I want to try and focus on doing as well as I can in the tournaments I play in. I will probably try to win one or two in the summer and then things will take care of themselves in regards to Gleneagles."

All roads lead to Gleneagles for Francesco Molinari © Synergy

Good performances at the remainder of this year's major championships, starting at this week's US Open, will propel Molinari up the standings.

Molinari's solid form on the regular Tours is yet to be transferred to golf's four biggest prizes. Finishes of 30th, 19th and 50th at the Masters have been dovetailed by missed cuts, while his US Open record reads two top-30s and three MCs. A share for ninth at last year's Open represents his best major finish, while the PGA Championship has been a happy hunting ground, including a top-10 finish in 2009.

Molinari, like every golfer on the circuit in the last two decades, will not have a better chance to win a major championship than when Woods is not playing. But the Italian refuses to believe that his old Ryder Cup foe will remain stuck on 14.

"One thing is for sure, you can see in the way he works that he still has the desire to win golf tournaments and especially to win majors. If his fitness and health will support him, he can definitely do it. Before the injury, he went through a difficult patch at the majors but he's the best that's ever walked the golf course so I would be surprised if he didn't win any more majors in his career."

As for his own chances at major championships, he adds: "It's hard to know. If you look at the guys who have won them there are all different kinds of stories; there are guys who have been in contention a few times before winning and guys who have won at their first real chance.

"I don't want to say I will win, but I hope to do well and if I happen to be there on the final day I will do my best to win, if not I will just be happy playing well and getting a good result."

With golf being largely and individual sport, would Molinari give up his two Ryder Cup appearances for major championship glory?

He smiles and exhales heavily. "It's a tough question because it's so hard to compare," he says. "When you're growing up, there are two things you think about: winning majors and playing in - and winning - the Ryder Cup.

"I've been lucky enough to be on two winning two Ryder Cup teams and I don't think I would change that for a major. Hopefully that will come later in my career.

"Off the top of my head I would say no. The two Ryder Cups will live with me forever."

If Molinari does lift a maiden major this year, maybe he should be asked the question once again.

Alex Perry is assistant editor of ESPN.co.uk. Follow him on Twitter.

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