When asked to explain how he has picked up 20 yards with the driver over the past three seasons on the PGA Tour—yet, still puts it on the fairway—Francesco Molinari says, “I took the brakes off.”
Leave it to an Italian to use a sports-car metaphor.
Coming off his best year as a professional golfer in 2018, in which he won the Open Championship and the Quicken Loans National and went 5-0 in the Ryder Cup, Molinari is now in the “300 Club.” He averaged 301 yards off the tee on the PGA Tour last season, up from 281.6 in 2015. As if that distance gain wasn’t impressive enough, he did it without ruining his reputation as a fairway finder. Molinari averaged 64.3 percent of fairways hit and finished seventh in strokes gained/off the tee.
When you don’t hit it very far on the PGA Tour, you’re essentially left with a choice: Focus on the tournaments on shorter and tighter courses, or try to get longer off the tee. The former isn’t very appealing, considering the majors and most of the other big events are on courses calling for longer tee shots. But the latter is risky.
“They say it can ruin your swing, and I know it probably has for some players, but it wasn’t a concern for me because we did it organically very well,” says Molinari, who met with Golf Digest in late October at his home course, The Wisley, southwest of London. “It wasn’t like one day I showed up on the range and said to my coach [Denis Pugh], ‘Let’s try to hit it farther.’ This took years to do. Luckily, I’ve found that the harder I swing, the better I hit it.”
Read below to learn how Molinari got an extra 20 yards. —Ron Kaspriske
Freeing up the backswing
Molinari used to take the club back by rotating away from the target with his upper body while resisting that rotation with his lower body. Now his right hip rotates in unison with his trunk (below), and he’s able to make an unrestricted turn and store more energy for a faster through-swing. Molinari’s swing speed has gone from 107 miles per hour a few years ago to an average of 113 mph.
“I used to feel so much tighter, more tension in my back muscles,” he says. “Now I have more freedom of movement.” Pugh says the goal was to have him take the club back “as high, tall and as far as possible.” Even to the point where his left heel has to lift off the ground to accommodate the bigger windup. “It’s not something I’m consciously trying to do,” Molinari says. “The left heel is just rising because of how much freer I’m turning.”
Loading even more from the top
With his back facing the target and his arms feeling like they’re farther away from his body (below), Molinari is in position to pour on the power. But it’s the next phase of his swing—one that he’s still working on— that could make him even longer. “In practice, I would consciously squat as I started down with the club,” he says. “From there, it felt like I was jumping off my left foot, which fired the club into the ball with a lot of energy. I think that’s where we’re trying to go in the future—put that move in play.”
Molinari has spent a lot of time with performance coach Dave Alred getting stronger and more flexible. Their work is evident in the power Molinari can generate with his legs, Pugh says. “Power doesn’t come from technique, it comes from physique,” he says. “The goal was to get him as strong as possible to create more power in his swing. But we had to make sure his technique didn’t block that newfound energy from being utilized.”
Hitting with the right side
Players such as Rory McIlroy and Cameron Champ are able to generate whip-like action in the downswing by firing their hips toward the target independently of their torsos. Molinari says he’d love to generate power the same way, but he physically can’t. “I had to find a different kind of power move,” he says. In the past, his swing speed was largely created by his hands and arms—a big reason he averaged only about 280 yards off the tee—but now his trunk is much more involved. “My right shoulder used to stay back as I swung down, still close to where it was at address,” he says. “Then the club would race out in front of me. Now I’m really trying to feel a lot more shoulder rotation in the downswing—especially the right shoulder [above]. I feel like it’s pushing down toward the ball and also toward the target.”
Releasing the brakes
Looking back at his former swing, Molinari says he was probably using only 70 to 75 percent of his potential effort. “Since that time, I’m putting a lot more energy into it,” he says. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I’m swinging out of my shoes. I’m just maximizing what I’ve got.”
The key was getting him to swing harder while maintaining balance and still finding the club’s sweet spot, Pugh says. “You can give up some accuracy going at it like this,” he says, “but would you rather be a few feet off the fairway in semi-rough or 25 yards back in the fairway? The goals were to get him physically stronger, making a bigger backswing and creating speed more with his body rather than his hands.” Getting back to Molinari’s sports-car metaphor, Pugh finishes by saying, “Applying the brakes in a turn on a racetrack is safe. But we wanted to know what would happen if We didn’t go safe. Now we know.”