In the latest episode of our Coaching Champions series, Phil Kenyon speaks about his relationship with Francesco Molinari, and how the Italian went from a below-average putter to an exceptional putter during his Open triumph in 2018.
Phil Kenyon has coached some of the world’s best players for well over a decade, and has taught three Open Champions in Darren Clarke, Henrik Stenson and Francesco Molinari.
It is his work with Molinari over the past three years however that stands out as some of the most prominent in Kenyon’s career, with the Englishman helping to add the final piece in Molinari’s major championship puzzle.
“So I got a phone call off Fran just after the Mexico WGC in March of 2018,” Kenyon said. “He was struggling with his putting at the time, and he wanted a second opinion. So I arranged to see him at Bay Hill, and I met him for the first time and obviously spent some time with him.“
Molinari's season in 2017 had been superb, ranking sixth on the PGA TOUR from Tee to Green, and recording numerous high finishes in spite of poor putting, which had long been a weakness for the Italian. In early 2018 however, the results were not so positive, with no top-40 finishes in Molinari's first three events.
“He was fairly open," Kenyon said. "I think he admittedly said he was struggling at the time, and you could see there were quite a few things he needed to get better in comparison to the levels his competitors were at.
“When you looked at the stats and the makeup of his game, you could see that his putting stats over the years weren’t at the level that they needed to be at, in terms of meeting his goals and expectations.”
Kenyon and Molinari set to work right away on fixing Molinari’s play on the greens, with the Italian’s dedication instantly impressing Kenyon.
“The couple of things that stood out were that he was really struggling with his start line, and there were a couple of issues in his stroke which would affect his speed control, so there’s two fundamental skills which if you’re not in control of you’re going to struggle to hole putts," said Kenyon. "The emphasis was to tidy up those two areas as quickly as possible.
"Fran is a great student to work with, because he’s really resilient, very hard working and committed. We made some big changes early on and it didn’t go necessarily really smoothly to start with, there were some sort of teething problems, but because of his resilience, his hard work and application he kind of stuck to the process and just got his head down and was working through it.”
It was then, in the summer of 2018, when everything came together for the Ryder Cup star. Two wins and two second-place finishes in five events building up to the 147th Open Championship at Carnoustie, signalled a sign of things to come.
“I knew he was in good form, not just in his long game but the putting was coming together,” Kenyon said. “So you go to The Open thinking, yeah he’s got a chance, he’s one of the best players in the world, and it’s a major championship. And he looked good in practice, so come Thursday you’re eager to see how he gets on.”
After rounds of 70 and 72 in the first two rounds, Molinari fired a superb round of 65 on Saturday to vault to six under par for the championship and just three shots behind a trio of leaders at nine under par.
Paired with Tiger Woods for the final round, Molinari was as solid as a rock, and leaned on his new-found putting confidence to keep him in contention all day.
“If you think that you can improve them just 1%, 2%, and that helps them then go on and achieve their dreams, it’s an immensely satisfying feeling.” Phil Kenyon
“I was ecstatic about how he putted that week,” Kenyon said, “Not just the final round, but we kept his stats from that week ourselves and he was strokes gained putting every day, and then the final round he gained two and a half shots against a standard field.
“Under the circumstances of playing in the final round of The Open, playing with Tiger as well, I think he managed his game phenomenally well. It was tough, a lot of people were dropping shots. He made a couple of critical up and downs I think around 12 and 13, he had two seven foot putts, which I think were massive in the context of the tournament, and he holed them both.”
“And then he was just solid coming down the stretch, so I think his putting in the final round was really good and really pleasing to see that level of performance under pressure.”
Molinari stepped onto the 18th hole with a share of the lead at seven under par, after 16 pars and one birdie over his first 17 holes. A great drive and approach set up a six-foot putt for birdie that, at the time, seemed like a putt for The Open. Kenyon himself could hardly watch.
“I think my head was between my knees at that point,” Kenyon said. “I was in the clubhouse, there was a nice little area for coaches and family members and stuff that was near the locker room, and it had a big screen on. And it was a horrible period of time, because you know that there’s so much at stake.
“You’re wanting to watch, but not wanting to watch. So I actually don’t think I watched that putt, I actually think I looked away and then reacted to the reaction, so it was kind of a little bit of a blur at the time.”
Molinari gave a roar of emotion as he holed his final putt, standing firm under immense pressure on Sunday as others buckled around him. It was the realisation of a dream for the Italian, and Kenyon is delighted to have helped provide him the extra edge.
“It makes me feel immensely proud,” Kenyon said. “I’m fortunate at the same time that you’re in a position where you can work with tremendous athletes and golfers, and if you think that you can improve them just 1%, 2%, and that helps them then go on and achieve their dreams, it’s an immensely satisfying feeling. So, fortunate, lucky? Definitely. Proud? Absolutely."
“Having the opportunity to work at a high level, work with that level of golfer, was something that I always set out to do. So to have the opportunity then to help some of these guys win tournaments like The Open, yeah I’ll retire happy for sure.”