Francesco Molinari, of Italy, hits from a bunker on the second hole during the second round for the Masters golf tournament. Photo: Matt Slocum/AP

AUGUSTA – Francesco Molinari’s confidence has grown exponentially in the year since his last trip to the Masters, but Italy’s British Open champion still isn’t 100 percent comfortable at daunting Augusta National.

“I feel a massive difference when I’m on the greens or around the greens compared to my previous times here,” said Molinari, who is making his eighth Masters start.

Molinari claimed his first major title at Carnoustie last year and delivered a scintillating 5-0 performance for Europe in a Ryder Cup triumph over the United States.

Molinari, whose results in the past 12 months also include 2018 victories in the US PGA Tour’s Quicken Loans National and the European Tour’s flagship BMW PGA Championship, fired a final-round 64 to win the Arnold Palmer Invitational last month.

The 36-year-old said the results are the product of years of work – including a complete rebuild of his putting.

He fired an impressive bogey-free five-under par 67 on Friday to seize a share of the early second-round lead at the Masters – but he’s not about to let his guard down.

“It’s still pretty uncomfortable when you’re standing over some putts or some chips, because the margins are so small that you can be as good as you want, but you still know there’s not a lot of room to miss,” he said.

“I’m happy that so far I’ve done better than in the past and hopefully I can keep doing the same.”

In seven prior Masters appearances, Molinari’s best finish was a tie for 19th back in 2012.

That wasn’t his first brush with Augusta, which came when he caddied for his brother Edoardo, who played in 2006 as the the previous year’s US Amateur champion.

Molinari, who was just heading into his second year on the European Tour, said it was an exciting, if not particuarly edifying, experience.

“I have lots of memories, mostly the fact that I didn’t really enjoy caddying,” he said. “I love being here, and I love caddying for my brother, but it was just so hard to give him clubs, and it seemed a bit of a nightmare, standing with the bag, waiting for him to hit the shots.”

Molinari said the experience was great motivation, although at the time he never imagined he’d be a regular at the Masters.

As recently as last year, he said he never felt like a contender, but the improvements in his game around and on the greens have changed all that.

“I definintely feel I have a lot more control of my pace on the greens and in general with the chipping, the trajectory, the spin.

“I just feel better,” he said. “I think that feeds into the long game, as well, knowing that I can hit irons without being completely terrified of missing a green in the wrong spot.”

AFP