WILMINGTON, N.C. (AP) - Francesco Molinari is starting to get comfortable with a steady diet of American golf.
North Carolina has been particularly good to the 34-year-old Italian.
After he chipped in from just off the 18th green for one last birdie Thursday in the Wells Fargo Championship, Molinari had a 6-under 66 and kept the lead the rest of the afternoon at Eagle Point. It was the first time he has had the lead after the opening round on the PGA Tour.
“A great way to end up the day, a very good round,” Molinari said.
Two areas of curiosity Thursday were Eagle Point and Dustin Johnson.
Johnson, the world’s No. 1 player, opened with a 70 in his first competition in six weeks. He was primed for the Masters last month, coming off three straight victories against the strongest fields of the year, when he slipped down the stairs on the eve of the first major and suffered a deep bruise in his lower back. He never made it to the first tee at Augusta National.
He didn’t look like he accumulated much rust, missing only two greens in regulation that led to his only two bogeys.
“Since I hadn’t played in so long, I’m happy with the way I played,” Johnson said. “I didn’t score that great, didn’t really hole that many putts, but other than that, I played really well.”
Eagle Point is a beautiful Tom Fazio design with towering pines lining the fairways, white sand in the bunkers and various streams and ponds that emits a tranquil feeling like Augusta National. But with undulating greens and a steady wind, no one was sure how it would play.
Eagle Point is filling in for Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, which is hosting the PGA Championship in August.
Just over half the field was at par or better. Good scores were available.
Molinari played the Wells Fargo Championship for the first time last year and loved Quail Hollow, where he tied for 17th in tough conditions. His only other trip to North Carolina was for the 2014 U.S. Open at Pinehurst No. 2, where his tie for 23rd remains his best result in the U.S. Open.
Knowing that it was moving courses this year, he returned, anyway.
“I didn’t know what to expect coming here, but it’s a different style than Quail Hollow,” he said. “But it’s another great course. It’s not the longest, but you need to hit good shots. With the wind, you need to hit the ball left-to-right and right-to-left. It’s just a very good, solid course.”
Control of his shots is the strength of the Italian’s game.
It has carried him to four victories around the world, the biggest of them a World Golf Championship in 2010 at the HSBC Champions when Molinari and Westwood staged a magnificent duel over Sheshan International in Shanghai. He beat Westwood by one shot, and the next closest player was 10 shots out of the lead.
Molinari also has qualified for two Ryder Cup teams, both victories. His halved match against Tiger Woods at Medinah in 2012, where Woods missed a 3-foot putt when Europe already had retained the cup, gave his side outright victory.
But it hasn’t been easy in the two years that Molinari has taken up PGA Tour membership and tried to juggle a travel schedule between the U.S. and European Tour stops that have taken him all over the world.
“It’s not easy, I think, for us coming over,” Molinari said. “It took me a couple of seasons to adapt and to get used to the courses and the conditions. It was a new challenge coming here two years ago, playing more tournaments here, and I enjoyed it a lot. And obviously now, I feel more comfortable and I’ve improved a lot in the last couple of years and I’m looking forward to this season.”
Molinari finished at No. 111 in the FedEx Cup in his two seasons - a tie for third at the Memorial helped him in 2015, and last year he had a couple of solid showings in two majors along with a tie for ninth in The Players Championship.
This season, he has missed only one cut in 11 starts in PGA Tour events, with eight of them in the top 25. That’s a good start with still a long road ahead until the PGA Tour season ends in September. And that’s how he looked at his opening round - a good start, with three more days ahead of him.
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