Francesco Molinari was the star performer in 2018. One half of the ‘Moliwood’ bromance, the Champion Golfer of the Year brought his game to a new level and will have star appeal in Portrush, writes Paul Gallagher

How did it get to this point so soon? Next time we come out of hibernation all roads will lead to a certain gathering in Portrush. It remains a staggering thought that the game’s oldest, most prestigious Major will return to these shores in just a few short months. The Open coming to Northern Ireland for the first time in almost 70 years (it was last played in Portrush in 1951) has always been out there; far enough away not to get flustered about organising tickets and digs. Time enough to co-ordinate the pilgrimage to the Antrim coast for what will be an “I was there” event sure to be etched into the annals. The procrastinating is over though. Tickets have already been bought, what’s left will be like hen’s teeth in the final scramble to make it through the gates of Royal Portrush come the third week of July.
Have no doubt, golfers in these parts will be whipped up into a frenzy, self-indulgent frenzies at that, while non-golfers will simply look-on and wonder what all the fuss is about.
Some will see it as the greatest sporting spectacle of their lifetime, others will view it as just another inconvenient gathering of overpaid prima donnas smacking dimpled balls around a manicured field in front of their followers. Harsh but true, perhaps? In any case surely it will offer a genuine alternative to all things Brexit – whatever that mess looks like in six months’ time? The Open at Portrush has been a long time coming, yet it’s here in a flash. It felt as though the countdown began in 2012 when the Irish Open rolled into town. Back then sceptics lined up to shoot it down. “It will be a shambles…there’s no infrastructure…Portrush won’t be able to cope,” were some of the lines trotted out. Turned out to be nonsense. Record crowds of over 112,000 spilled onto the links that week and any logistical concerns were quickly allayed with military precision. Of course, The Open will be a completely different animal.  A golfing behemoth like no other (in terms of numbers and logistics) this side of the Atlantic and outside of the Ryder Cup. Spectator numbers for The 148th Open are expected to be somewhere north of 200,000. Ticket sales for the 2019 edition were launched earlier than ever and the R&A moved to an all-ticket model, such has been the demand for next year’s Open. The Open is set to become the largest sporting event to take place in Ireland. It will dwarf any regular tour event – even the 2006 Ryder Cup at The K Club – and will unquestionably put strain on services and accommodation stock in the area. Sounds obvious but Northern Ireland is a small place so people will travel daily and from afar to be present at this one. Get park and ride right and at least one major headache for organisers will be ticked. And inside the ropes, we’ll get to witness the unflappable Champion Golfer of the Year make his defence after a clinical display at Carnoustie where he fended off the likes of McIlroy, Woods, Rose and others. Open Champion Francesco Molinari enjoyed a stellar 2018. The Italian could do no wrong. Wherever he teed it up, he got the job done. By lifting the Claret Jug on the Scottish east coast, he became the first Italian to win a Major. He also won the European Tour’s Blue Riband BMW PGA Championship and went on to secure the Race to Dubai. And for all that, the 36-year-old still had plenty in the tank and blazed his own trail at the Ryder Cup in Paris. His unforgettable “Moliwood” partnership/bromance with Tommy Fleetwood was the stuff of legend. The pair embraced it all and hilarious skits that followed added to the occasion. Molinari is considered in his thoughts and once again he let his golf to the talking at Le Golf National to become the first European to win five points out of five in a Ryder Cup. Hardly surprising, he was given Honorary Life membership of the European Tour in recent weeks. It’s at this time of year, we look back and reflect on the season. For reasons highlighted above, Molinari takes the plaudits from this corner, hands down. From an Irish perspective, 2018 can only be described as a mediocre or satisfactory return. Of course, there were highlights along the way, but it further illustrates how spoiled the Irish golfing fraternity has been in recent years with so many Major champions, world number ones and Ryder Cup glories. Rory McIlroy still sets the benchmark, yet by his own admission he is glad to put 2018 behind and reboot for 2019. It was great to see Graeme McDowell get the competitive juices flowing again at the recent QBE Shootout where he finished runner up alongside Emiliano Grillo. G-Mac will be focused on finding a way back to his home turf come next July. For this writer, the standout performers in 2018 from an Irish perspective were Gavin Moynihan and Stephanie Meadow. Both dug deep and found ways to secure their cards on their respective main tours. Moynihan showed great tenacity to come through Qualifying School despite being injured and will look to push on in 2019. Meadow graduated from the Symmetra Tour to earn her chance to cut it with the best in the game in the States. We wish them the very best of luck as 2019 promises to be another historic year for Irish golf. -ENDS
All roads lead to Portrush in 2019

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