The Ibis Earls Court is an unlikely starting point from which to plot an The Open defence, but last Wednesday morning Francesco Molinari stopped outside the hotel after a short drive from his home to pick up his caddie, Pello Iguaran Valle.
For 45 minutes, the pair drove to The Wisley golf club in Surrey, repeating the same commute there and back before Valle flew out to Northern Ireland late on Friday to prepare 48 hours before the Italian’s arrival.
The build-up could not be more contrasting to a year ago at Carnoustie, when Molinari landed on the Monday jet-lagged following two successful tournaments in America, where he won and finished second.
This time, he will not have swung a golf club competitively for 25 days since finishing 57th at the Travelers Championship. His swing coach for the past 14 years, Denis Pugh, rejects the suggestion he is peaking for Portrush.
Instead, Pugh’s mantra has been the same: “It’s about being in a constant state of readiness, a Major is just another week. The media and history make the events special, but it’s not a good idea for a player and his team to see it as special.”
As defending champion, such thinking is hard to avoid. His caddie remembers how, level par for the opening two rounds in 2018, no one talked about his chances, but this time it is a different story. A year ago, the lengthy build-up began with what some called a crisis meeting after he missed the cut at the Players Championship and it worked as he won his next tournament, the BMW PGA at Wentworth.
Similar talks were held in April after Molinari came unstuck at the Masters, where he had been the final-round leader.
“We looked at Masters week and saw it in a positive way, not dwelling on a couple of bad holes,” said Pugh. “Confidence comes from doing the right things every day rather than winning in a certain week and thinking you have the secret.”
But for Pugh, there is a secret weapon in the Molinari camp — Rob Goldup, who for nearly a decade has overseen the 36-year-old’s fitness regime. And Valle cannot remember Molinari suffering any major injury issue, which he credits to Goldup, who like Pugh has not done any major overhaul in preparations this week. “We do not peak for certain events, but last year for The Open, we focused on jet-lag and recovery,” said Goldup. “This helped tailor his practice and training.”
That approach has not been required this year, with Molinari having mainly been in London before a first practice round at Portrush on Monday. But a longer off-season after his stunning 2018 has enabled the pair to work harder — targeting physical development, the energy to compete and reducing injury risks. At The Wisley last week, all the team were working on Molinari’s game, with Valle as the bagman acting as the vital link to the rest of the group.
Valle began working with the golfer in January 2015, about the same time as Dave Alred, the performance coach who helped England to Rugby World Cup glory in 2003.
For Valle, the Portrush preparation began with reading his notes from 2012, when former employer Ignacio Garrido played there and missed the cut.
He first walked the course on Saturday, with Sunday’s return about getting to grips with how it might behave in the more volatile conditions as the wind picks up. “The most important thing is being able to adapt,” he said. “It was the same at Carnoustie. With the wind on the final day, we couldn’t attack.
“On day one at hole eight, he hit a driver and 50-yard wedge. On the Sunday, it was a two iron and four iron. We decided to play short of the bunkers as there weren’t many chances to attack the course. This could be the same.”
Keeping Molinari calm is central to his role and he does this by rarely speaking about golf in between shots, instead, “having a smile and a joke”.
There was a notable coolness to Molinari last year, aided by the addition of putting guru Phil Kenyon to the team.
His putting stance was too straight and needed to be more bent over, the club face shifted, the tempo of the strike and speed of the swing also changed to improve control.
Kenyon said: “His putting was pretty poor, maybe three out of 10. Now it can be nine out of 10. He couldn’t control his startline, his speed and green reading weren’t great. But that improved. His technique and control are better.”
The team are ever expanding, the most recent addition being James Ridyard to focus on his short game.
A year ago, Pugh remembered thinking “something special might happen, but it was a hunch not a plan”. The plan for 2019 has given Molinari an even better platform from which to win.