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How 20 yards helped Francesco Molinari have a career year in 2018

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SILVIS, IL - JULY 15:  Francesco Molinari of Italy hits his tee shot on the second hole during the final round of the John Deere Classic at TPC Deere Run on July 15, 2018 in Silvis, Illinois.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

SILVIS, IL - JULY 15: Francesco Molinari of Italy hits his tee shot on the second hole during the final round of the John Deere Classic at TPC Deere Run on July 15, 2018 in Silvis, Illinois. (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Open champion gained 20 yards over the past three years

    Written by Sean Martin @PGATOURSMartin

    Francesco Molinari's slo-mo swing is analyzed at Wells Fargo

    Have hope. It’s never too late to gain distance. Francesco Molinari proved that in his career-changing 2018 campaign.

    A drastic increase in driving distance helped the 35-year-old Italian have a dream season. He became the first player to win a major and go 5-0 in the Ryder Cup in the same year. He won his first PGA TOUR title and qualified for his first TOUR Championship, as well.

    Putting instructor Phil Kenyon and performance coach Dave Alred have received a lot of credit for Molinari’s success, and rightfully so. His 20-yard gain since 2015 -- including a 10-yard increase since 2017 -- was an underreported aspect of his rapid ascension into to the game’s elite ranks, though.

    Molinari is proof that the incremental impact of longer tee shots -- though more difficult to observe than the effect of improved putting -- adds up over the course of a tournament and a season.

    For many years, Molinari was known for his laser-straight tee shots. They helped him have a strong career. He was a two-time Ryder Cup participant and owned four victories on the European Tour, including the 2010 World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions, before this season.

    This week, Sheshan International is the site of Molinari's 2018-19 debut. He arrives in Shanghai after nearly doubling his career victory total in a single season. He won The Open Championship and Quicken Loans National, as well as the European Tour's flagship event, the BMW PGA Championship. He reached career-highs in the FedExCup (17th) and world ranking (5th). He went undefeated at Le Golf National after going winless in his first two Ryder Cups.

    Molinari and his longtime swing coach, Denis Pugh, started the search for extra yards several years ago. There were some obvious ways for Molinari to hit it farther, but such a change doesn’t come without risk. Several players have lost their way in the quest for extra yardage.

    Molinari changed his swing, his equipment and strategy.

    “My swing was very compact and very simple so it was probably easier for me than some other guys to find ways to get more swing speed and ball speed,” Molinari said. “It’s a very delicate work.”

    He also hit the gym.

    “I was more of a couch guy a few years ago,” he said.

    Augusta National’s eighth hole, an uphill par-5 with a large bunker looming on the right side of the fairway, provides a perfect illustration of Molinari’s transformation

    Long hitters can carry the hazard to reach the green in two. Molinari had to aim away from the bunker, then lay up.

    “This year, a couple days it was warm and a little down-breeze. I carried the bunker and I was able to hit 5-wood or 4-iron into the green,” he said. His T20 finish was one off his career-best at the Masters.

    He finished this season ranked seventh in Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee (+0.72) and 52nd in driving distance (301.0 yards). Three years ago, he was 153rd in driving distance with an average measured drive of 281.6 yards.

    “It’s very important for mainly two reasons. One, it’s easier to play the golf course. … I can carry a few more bunkers every round on different courses. That means having a few more wedges into the greens and it has a ripple effect on the game,” Molinari said. “Confidence-wise, it’s simply good to see when you’re out there that you’re driving it past some guys and you’re not 50 behind some guys, you’re maybe only 20 yards behind.”

    Mark Broadie, the inventor of the Strokes Gained statistics, quantified the benefits of increased distance in his book “Every Shot Counts.” An extra 20 yards off the tee can be worth up to three strokes per tournament, he said. It's the sum of small gains.

    The average PGA TOUR player takes 2.98 strokes to hole out from 160 yards. It’s 2.91 from 140 yards. That’s less than one-tenth of a stroke, but it can become significant over the course of 72 holes. The increased distance outweighs the increase in missed fairways, as well.

    Molinari also is hitting his irons farther, and with increased spin and a higher trajectory.

    Broadie keeps statistics for Molinari, as well as his brother, Edoardo, who won the 2009 World Cup with Francesco and teamed with him at the 2010 Ryder Cup. Edoardo was one of the first pros to apply Broadie’s Strokes Gained statistics to his own game.

    Francesco is gaining 1.9 more strokes per tournament with his tee shots than he was in 2015 (when adjusted for courses and field strength).

    “I was very impressed at the magnitude of his distance gain this year, especially after the large gain from 2015 to 2016,” Broadie said.

    Molinari did it with relatively little loss in accuracy.

    He still hits a relatively high number of fairways for a player of his length. That’s how he ranked eighth in total driving – the sum of a player’s ranking in driving distance and accuracy -- last season.

    And his misses still aren’t far from the fairway. That allows him to be more aggressive with his club selection off the tee. Molinari said he's started hitting driver more often to further capitalize on his length.

    His tee shots covered 64 percent of the yardage on par-4s and par-5s this season. That's nearly 5 percent more than three seasons ago. He ranked 27th in that statistic in 2018 after ranking 168th (out of 184 players) in 2015.

    His compact swing offered room for improvement, as well. He now makes a bigger turn on the backswing to create more speed. He tries to feel his sternum turning as far and as high from the ball as possible. He lifts his left heel off the ground to increase his turn.

    TaylorMade’s Adrian Rietveld saw Molinari’s transformation first-hand. During one of their first testing sessions, in October 2016, Molinari’s clubhead speed averaged 107.1 mph and his ball speed was 158.5 mph.

    In February 2018, his clubhead speed was over 112 mph and ball speed was nearly 166 mph.

    “He constantly spoke about how hard he was working with Denis Pugh on his swing and in the gym with his team,” Rietveld said. “Some days he would be just too (tired) from the strength work to produce long equipment sessions.”

    In May 2018, he was up to 114 and 169 mph. He was now carrying the ball nearly 290 yards, more than 25 yards longer than that October 2016 testing session.

    “Apart from my work with Justin Rose, I have never worked with a player as precise as Francesco,” Rietveld said. He watched Rose undergo a similar distance gain that helped him win the 2013 U.S. Open, then win the FedExCup and become No. 1 in the world ranking.

    In today’s game, players who gain speed can also gain trophies. Molinari has three from this season as proof.

    Sean Martin manages PGATOUR.COM’s staff of writers as the Lead, Editorial. He covered all levels of competitive golf at Golfweek Magazine for seven years, including tournaments on four continents, before coming to the PGA TOUR in 2013. Follow Sean Martin on Twitter.

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