Francesco Molinari attends a practice session ahead of Open Championship on Monday. Reuters
Francesco Molinari said this year’s Open will be “extra special” as he prepares to try and defend the Claret Jug at Royal Portrush, the first time the tournament has been played on Northern Irish soil for 68 years.
Molinari, who emerged from a thrilling final day at Carnoustie a year ago to become the first Italian to win a major, will begin his quest alongside American Bryson DeChambeau and Australian Adam Scott.
“Any week you defend it’s special, but this week will be extra special,” he said at his news conference on Monday after the pairings for the first two days were announced.
“I just want to enjoy it as much as possible and like I did at the Ryder Cup, I want to soak in the atmosphere.”
It will also be a special week for Northern Ireland’s contingent, including Darren Clarke and Rory McIlroy.
Clarke will strike the first tee shot at the County Antrim course at 6.35am local time, after the 2011 champion was grouped with Irish amateur James Sugrue and American Charley Hoffman.
McIlroy, winner in 2014, will play with Ryder Cup team mate Paul Casey and US Open champion Gary Woodland.
Tiger Woods, who ended an 11-year majors drought to win the Masters in April, has a late start time on the opening day when he will play with Englishman Matt Wallace and 2018 Masters winner Patrick Reed.
World number one Brooks Koepka also tees off after lunch with former winner Louis Oosthuizen and Shubhankar Sharma.
The 7,344-yard, par-71 seaside links will present new challenges having not been on the Open rota since 1951. Straight-hitting Molinari says it will reward accuracy.
“I remember most of the holes (from playing the Irish Open in 2012),” he said. “It was quite a big challenge, especially at the beginning, to get used to it.
“I guess it’s something you learn to deal with. I know it’s a strong golf course, mostly positional, like many links it’s not really a course that you can overpower.”
Meanwhile, McIlroy has signalled an attacking policy for the tournament, saying he hopes to use his driver liberally after having enjoyed considerable success with the strategy last year.
The par-71 Portrush measures a whisker over 7,300 yards, though links courses generally play shorter than their yardages due to firm fairways that afford plenty of roll.
Long hitters such as McIlroy need not hit their driver often but it can be advantageous to do so.
“Carnoustie last year I didn’t envisage hitting that many drivers and then I got there the week of the tournament,” McIlroy said of last year’s British Open in an interview organised by NBC’s Golf Channel.
What he saw at the Scottish course was less potential for trouble with wayward drives than he expected. A subsequent tie for second vindicated his attacking game-plan.
“I think what they’ve started to do at Open championships, to accommodate spectators, they’ve taken a lot of the gorse bushes away so Carnoustie last year I hit driver everywhere,” he said.
“I’m not expecting to do that at Portrush (but) it might be a case of like Carnoustie last year where I (arrive) thinking I’m only going to hit three or four drivers during the round but in actual fact it could be more like seven or eight, or nine or 10.”
McIlroy guesses that he has played Portrush between 50 and 100 times but only a handful of occasions since a re-design two years ago that included two new holes.