Francesco Molinari enjoyed a career year in 2018, winning the BMW Championship on the European Tour then the Quicken Loans National before capturing his first major title at the Open Championship. Like Patrick Reed and Brooks Koepka—the year’s other major winners—Molinari was an equipment free agent, and he had the ability to play whatever he chose. Now, however, the 36-year-old Italian star has inked a multi-year agreement with Callaway to play its clubs and golf ball. Golf Digest Equipment Editor E. Michael Johnson spoke with Molinari about the move, why he was nervous about making a putter change and the Tour Championship pairing with Phil Mickelson that had an impact on his decision to sign with Callaway.
When Rory signed with TaylorMade he said he felt a sense of relief that he knew what he was doing equipment-wise and the experimenting was over. Any similar feeling for you?
"I know what he means. Two-and-a-half years ago when Nike got out of the equipment business we were all in the same situation. It was, to be honest, at first a bit confusing because you had so many options, and it’s not so easy to go through them. I had been playing 13 clubs from the same manufacturer, so for me it was more finding someone with the same desire to get better, like I have, and I found that pretty much from the beginning with the Callaway guys when I sat down with them, and the same when I hit the product. I was impressed and probably even a little surprised at the beginning. It’s been an exciting time."
Did you speak with any of Callaway’s staff to see what it was like to be part of their tour team, what the service was like and such?
"I did. Back home I spoke with Matteo Manassero and a few others. Then just by chance I played with Phil [Mickelson] at East Lake in the first and third round of the Tour Championship and we just started chatting about equipment in general. I hadn’t even had any contact with Callaway at the time, but it was interesting to speak to him. Then later in the year when it came time to sit down with Callaway that conversation came to mind.
"I asked around quite a bit and everyone was quick to point out how good a family it is and how everyone there is quick to help. I’m now starting to realize what they meant. It’s been really good so far on both sides of the Atlantic. I live in London not too far from the European office and the couple weeks I’ve been over here have been very good."
Was there a particular piece of equipment they showed you that piqued your interest?
"To be honest it was the combination of everything. Last year they gave me the new ball, the diamond and the two star ones to test. The new driver, the Stroke Lab putters. So it was more the general will and desire to get better and do it all with one company. Every part of the equipment was impressive. The driver-ball combination was the first thing I tested and I was impressed when I saw the ball-speed numbers, even without a proper fitting."
How important was the ball? Players have told me they can adapt to new clubs fairly quickly, but a ball change is a pretty deal.
"Absolutely. With clubs you can change lofts and shafts and weights to get to where you need to be, but with the Chrome Soft X ball there’s not a lot you can do. The ball speed was up with the driver then I tested the spin off the irons, because that is a very important factor to me to keep control of the ball and keep it in the right window. Around the greens it felt a little bit softer than my previous ball, so it was a bit of a no-brainer for me. I was gaining ball speed, feel and it was behaving with my irons so it was an easy switch to make."
Are you intrigued at all about the technology behind the Epic Flash driver or do you just care about the results it brings?
"To be honest, it’s more about the performance. But the fact Callaway is investing so much in new technologies and investing in finding solutions to improve their clubs meant quite a but to me. But it’s about the performance. I’m using the Epic Flash Sub Zero head and this driver along with the ball is meeting my performance expectations."
You had a good year on the greens last year with a Bettinardi putter that was very specific to you in terms of weight, etc. Did you make any such adjustments to your current putter and what do you think of the Stroke Lab shaft?
"I spoke with my putting coach, Phil Kenyon, who is affiliated with Callaway. Last year I had a very good putting year by my standards and that was one of the clubs I was a little bit more nervous about, but the switch was really easy. Interestingly, the Odyssey Toulon Madison Stroke Lab putter I have in the bag is the first one they sent me back in November. Since then they they’ve sent me some other things to try in terms of a similar head shape but different bumpers and different lines and milling on the face. But I’ve stayed with this one. It’s been great. The head is similar to what I had last year with the big difference being the shaft. That’s been a pleasant surprise. It’s been an easy switch. On short putts it feels very similar, but on longer putts I can feel it’s more stable. Looking back, the shaft I had in my putter I could feel more movement in the shaft on longer putts. So I feel I’m delivering the clubface more consistently to the ball on longer putts."
What piece of equipment is the most difficult for you to change?
"Like most players I have ideas in my head which might not always be true. Usually the 3-wood is the most challenging because it’s a club that has to perform in different conditions, off the tee and off the turf. You want spin and height when you’re hitting it into a par 5 and you want less spin and a stronger flight when hitting it off the tee. So it’s always a compromise."
And the easiest?
"Probably the irons because once you know more or less what you want from the sole of the club and the shaft that you like, usually it’s a pretty easy switch. Not always, but most of the time."
Speaking of the soles of clubs, do you do anything special with the grinds or bounces on your wedges, and do you ever make changes based on conditions, such as for the firm turf at Augusta National for the Masters?
"I’m pretty consistent throughout the year. I have four wedges, including the pitching wedge, a 50, 56- and 60-degree, all in the Mack Daddy 4. The 60-degree is a C grind with a bit of extra grinding in the heel and the back of the sole for versatility. It’s actually a club I had in the bag last year during the middle of the year because I liked it a lot. So that was a key club that I didn’t have to adjust to. Then the 50 and 56 are in the S grind with the standard sole and grind. It’s not needed with these clubs because I don’t open the face on them very often."
Judging from some of your social media posts and the like, it appears you’ve been working out to try and add ball speed and you’ve mentioned the ball speed gains in your equipment switch. Even after the year you had, do you feel you need to add speed in order to compete at a high level?
"Yes, I think so. There are more and more kids coming on tour and hitting the ball farther and farther. It’s not the only thing you need to do well to have success, but it’s becoming more and more important. Part of my success last year was due to hitting the ball a little bit longer and taking more advantage of my wedge play. So I kept the same workout philosophy this off season and went down that path again to try to get stronger and keep improving. It will be an important part of my winter preparation each year going forward."