British Open: Royal Portrush ready for a sprinkling of Molinari magic?

Francesco Molinari was brilliant in his 2018 Open triumph but the Italian is the most unassuming of champions.

Francesco Molinari speaks to the media during a practice round prior to the 148th Open Championship at Royal Portrush Golf Club.   -  Getty Images

In Portrush, the scenic Northern Irish coastal town playing host to this year's Open Championship, there is an ice cream parlour that boasts a rendering of Francesco Molinari made entirely from sprinkles.

It must have taken some considerable work to put together but by all accounts it was worth the effort, if you like that sort of thing. Not that Molinari has been to see it.

He is a busy man and not nearly as frivolous as the edible artwork created in his likeness. His focus this week is on retaining the Claret Jug he won last year in no less painstaking a manner than one imagines would be required to pay homage to a man via the medium of confectionery. 

Building up to the 2018 Open at Carnoustie the Italian was firmly under the radar, not considered a genuine challenger, and that seemed a fair assessment when he closed Friday's round six shots adrift.

But something happened over that weekend in Scotland that transformed Molinari. Or, perhaps more accurately, transformed the perception of Molinari.

You see, the man himself appears immune to change. Before becoming Champion Golfer of the Year, he was placid, low-key, modest. And afterwards? He was still all of those things, but somehow more so.

Amid the hype and hyperbole of his maiden major, secured by a stunning 65 on the Saturday and a nerveless, bogey-free 69 on the Sunday that saw him pull clear of a chasing pack featuring far glitzier names, Molinari's restraint was almost unimpeachable.

READ | The Open 2018: Molinari triumphs - how a dramatic final round unfolded

And suddenly people were interested in this quiet, unassuming man, whose reserved nature only caused him to be thrust further into the spotlight. He was a curio, worthy of closer scrutiny; people wanted to know what made him tick, or if his introversion was something he fought, something to be overcome.

Francesco Molinari of Italy plays a shot during a practice round prior to the 148th Open Championship at Royal Portrush Golf Club.   -  Getty Images


\During a media conference ahead of the Ryder Cup he was labelled "insular", the reporter who made the claim drawing a stark contrast between Molinari and the majority of his European team-mates, whose more expressive characters were painted as more desirable.

The answer was unemotional but considered, and it was absolutely true - "There's no point in trying to be something that you're not".

Of course, Molinari went on to light up Le Golf National with a perfect record, forming one half of the legendary 'Moliwood' duo with Tommy Fleetwood, a double act where nobody had any trouble identifying the straight man. And he did it his way - calmly, without fuss.

The quiet man brought an entire continent to a crescendo. Again, perceptions changed, but he did not.

And now, heading into this week at Portrush as the reigning champion, there are new expectations to deal with, the kind that come with being firmly on the radar, and not at all under it.

After the Masters, where Molinari slept on a two-stroke lead heading into a final day in which he shot a 74 to finish two behind eventual winner Tiger Woods, he is also having to deal with everyone realising he is indeed human, and therefore not entirely unaffected by pressure.

READ | Molinari wasn't ready for added expectations brought by Open triump

With that collapse, the myth of the unflappable Molinari - a ridiculous one at any rate - could no longer survive. But that was only ever the perception, and not one Molinari was invested in.

He is much more complex than the timid and reticent golfer so ripe for parody. Not unlike a masterpiece made of ice cream sprinkles - the closer you look, the more you find there is to admire.

So it was with little fanfare that Molinari held his media conference on Monday. It was not a packed room, there was little in the way of well-worn anecdotes, or of misty-eyed reminiscences. His Portrush canvas is blank for now, but ready for a sprinkling of Molinari magic.

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