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Molinari returns some 8 months later and with American base

The Associated Press

LAS VEGAS (AP) — Francesco Molinari never imagined when he left the Mexico Championship on Feb. 23 that his next full tournament would not be until the middle of October.

Or that he would be playing the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in Las Vegas to start preparing for the Masters.

Stranger still would be the London-based Italian house-hunting in Southern California.

Yes, a lot has transpired since the former British Open champion last played, except for the golf part of it.

“Not something I thought I would do in my career,” Molinari said of nearly eight-month break. “But in a way, it was nice to take a break and stay away for a bit. I definitely feel refreshed and looking forward to being back playing golf.”

Molinari is the last of the top-50 players to return to competition, and it's been so long that he's no longer in that group. He was No. 26 in the world after the World Golf Championship in Mexico City, and now is at No. 73, his lowest in four years.

The road back starts in Las Vegas, where he is part of a relatively strong field that features Bryson DeChambeau in his first tournament since bashing his way to a U.S. Open title at Winged Foot.

He's still bashing.

DeChambeau said he headed straight for the gym in Denver the day after winning his first major, eager to get started on his plan to use a 48-inch driver that he hopes to have ready to unveil at the Masters on Nov. 12-15. He already is looking at the number of par 4s at the TPC Summerlin he thinks he had can reach off the tee. He figures there are four of them.

“There will be holes where I’m going to try and drive them, get it up as close to the green as possible,” DeChambeau said. "It's just fun having a 7-iron go 220. That’s unique. And 4-iron, 265. There will be holes where I had to hit 3-wood and now I’m hitting 4-iron off the tees.

“At the same time it’s about putting, chipping, wedging,” he said. “You still got to do everything else really well. So if I play well, ball strike it well, and putt well, I think I’ll have a good chance again. Love this golf course.”

DeChambeau won in Las Vegas two years ago. Also in the field is Patrick Cantlay, who won his first PGA Tour title in Las Vegas in 2017 and has been runner-up each of the last two years. He lost in a playoff a year ago to Kevin Na.

Molinari has played this event only once, a tie for fourth in 2016, during a peculiar schedule. He went from Shanghai to Las Vegas, and then two weeks player closed out his European Tour season in Dubai.

Now he has a West Coast base.

Molinari moved to London a dozen years ago before he had children, and he was contemplating a change in lifestyle even before the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I was over here in Florida. My wife was in London. Both our families were in Italy,” he said. “So you ask yourself a few questions, and we just decided to make the move. Obviously, it’s not an easy thing to do in general, and it’s even harder to do in these circumstances.”

He had played a little golf in London before coming over to America in the middle of July, not enough golf to bother taking a spot in the field at two majors with a game that wasn't close to being ready. He actually was in San Francisco during the PGA Championship at Harding Park.

He decided on Southern California, and he has been practicing and playing at Virginia Country Club in Long Beach as a guest of Jamie Mulligan, the longtime coach for Cantlay and other California players.

Molinari figured he'd better get started ahead of the Masters, where he was on his way to victory last year until a tee shot in the water on the par-3 12th opened the door for Tiger Woods, and Woods seized control the rest of the way. Molinari hit another shot in the water on the 15th and wound up in a tie for fifth.

That took a lot out of him, and he has been open about trying to regain his confidence and form. He has yet to finish in the top 10 since the Masters. So now he's beginning the long road back, and he's starting a long way from home.