This is the 13th in a series of 18 stories reviewing every USGA championship and international team competition held at Merion Golf Club, site of the 2013 U.S. Open, which until 1942 was known as Merion Cricket Club.
On a Tuesday afternoon in late August of 2005, Edoardo Molinari stepped into a greenside bunker at Merion Golf Club’s ninth hole and prepared to play a shot he had practiced hundreds of times.
Outside of Molinari’s two fellow competitors, the three caddies in the grouping and a couple of USGA officials, few people were on hand to see what would be one of the key shots of the 2005 U.S. Amateur.
The 24-year-old from Turin, Italy, knew his survival at the championship likely depended on solidly executing the challenging shot.
“I thought I needed to get up and down … to make the cut for sure,” Molinari recalled in a recent email.
Without any nearby scoreboards detailing the match-play cutline, Molinari could only speculate on the number. He believed a par would be good enough.
As it turned out, Molinari needed a birdie, which he secured when he remarkably holed the 40-foot bunker shot to cap a 3-over-par round of 73.
Because of the location of Merion’s ninth hole – it’s several hundred yards from the clubhouse – a buzz didn’t immediately envelop the hallowed grounds of the East Course. Television cameras weren’t there to document what would turn out to be one of the defining moments of the championship.
That birdie 2 put Molinari into a 19-for-17 playoff the next morning for the final spots in the 64-man field for match play. Molinari went on to become the first European in 94 years – and the first-ever golfer from Continental Europe – to win the U.S. Amateur, and just the second player from Italy to claim a USGA championship (Silvia Cavalleri had won the Women’s Amateur eight years earlier).
“When something like that happens you are obviously very happy and confident,” said the now-32-year-old Molinari. “But to be honest, that particular shot didn’t affect my attitude too much for the rest of the week. It was still a long way to go to win the championship.
“But once I made it through the stroke-play part of it, I knew I could have a good week as I was putting really well and I was also driving it very straight, which obviously helps a lot on a course like Merion.”
Molinari, whose younger brother Francesco was competing on the European PGA Tour at the time, might not have been a household name among followers of amateur golf in the U.S. But the engineering student at Polytechnic University of Turin had enjoyed a solid summer before arriving in suburban Philadelphia.
In early July, he qualified for the British Open on the Old Course at St. Andrews and tied for 60th after being in contention through most of the first two rounds.
Shortly after the British Open, Molinari flew to the U.S. to compete in U.S. Amateur qualifying on July 25. He returned home to spend a few weeks with his family, then returned to suburban Philadelphia in late August with his father, Paolo, a dentist.
Molinari had entered the summer of 2005 with two goals: qualify for the British Open and the U.S. Amateur, though that wasn’t the extent of his travel. He competed in Europe, Japan and Australia.
In the fall of 2004, the Molinari brothers had teamed with Matteo Del Podio at the World Amateur Team Championship in Puerto Rico. The Italians managed a share of fourth with Canada and Switzerland, 15 strokes behind the champions from the USA.
Edoardo’s 2005 summer campaign began with a tough 1-down loss to eventual champion Brian McElhinney in the British Amateur at Royal Birkdale in England.
Molinari wasn’t even the biggest European name in the draw. Pablo Martin of Spain had been an All-American at Oklahoma State and 2005 Great Britain and Ireland Walker Cup member Gary Wolstenholme of England was a past British Amateur champion who had defeated Tiger Woods in a singles match at the 1995 Walker Cup. Another Englishman, Oliver Fisher, was coming off a strong Walker Cup performance at Chicago Golf Club, where the USA barely held off Great Britain and Ireland.
None of those golfers survived past the second round.
Molinari, however, did have some anxious early round moments. He needed 20 holes to oust Emilio Dominguez of Argentina in the first round and 19 holes to eliminate 2005 USA Walker Cup Team member Matt Every, of Daytona Beach, Fla., in the round of 32.
He made things a bit easier on himself in the next two rounds, dispatching Matthew Swan, of Montgomery, Ala., 3 and 2, in the round of 16, and Dawie Van Der Walt of South Africa, 6 and 4, in the quarterfinals. Facing the reigning U.S. Mid-Amateur champion, Austin Eaton III, of North Sutton, N.H., in the semis, Molinari gutted out a tough 2-and-1 decision, putting him into Sunday’s 36-hole championship match against Dillon Dougherty, of Woodland, Calif.
That prompted a phone call to Francesco.
“The first thing I told him was to go buy a plane ticket for Augusta,” Edoardo told media members in his post-round press conference of the likely invitation to the 2006 Masters for being a finalist. “He was very, very happy about it.”
A light rain greeted the competitors for the start of the final, and Molinari got off to a sluggish start, trailing his American opponent by three holes entering the lunch break.
But in the afternoon, Molinari produced one of the greatest putting performances in U.S. Amateur history.
Molinari needed only 18 putts, making four from 25 feet or longer, in shooting the equivalent of seven under par over the final 15 holes to defeat Dougherty, 4 and 3.
“You don’t expect a guy to make that many putts in a U.S. Amateur final,” said a crestfallen Dougherty, who played the final 15 holes in even par. “I just felt like every putt he had was going in, and pretty much almost every [putt] did.”
Molinari, who has gone on to become a two-time winner on the European Tour and 2010 European Ryder Cup Team member, has called that putting performance one of the greatest of his career.
“When the putts started to drop in the afternoon, they never stopped,” he said.
Molinari opened that afternoon round with a pair of birdies on holes 19 and 20 before squaring the match at the 23rd hole with a 6-foot birdie. Two holes later, Molinari drained a downhill 7-footer for his first lead. At the par-3 27th, the same hole where five days earlier he had holed out his bunker shot, Molinari left himself a challenging uphill 30-footer. Molinari pumped his arms high when the birdie putt found the hole. All Dougherty could do at this point was shake his head.
At the 29th hole, Molinari rolled in another 30-footer for a 3-up lead. He sealed the victory with a 15-foot birdie at the par-4 33rd hole.
“The way I played today was once in a lifetime,” said Molinari, in an effort to sympathize with Dougherty. “I’m sorry I played that well today.”
The triumph was major news in Italy, where golf takes a back seat to soccer and winter sports like Alpine and Nordic skiing. Molinari’s hometown of Turin, often called “the capital of the Alps,” would host the Winter Olympic Games six months after his U.S. Amateur victory.
Molinari delayed turning pro until the following fall so he could reap the full rewards for winning the Amateur. He competed in the 2006 Masters, U.S. Open and British Open, missing the cut in the first two majors and tying for 68th at the British. Francesco caddied for him at the Masters.
“It changed my life,” said Molinari of the Amateur victory. “It helped me a lot at the beginning of my professional career.”
Molinari is hoping to get another chance to play Merion in June when the U.S. Open returns for a fifth time. Currently ranked 171st in the world – the top 60 are exempt – Molinari more than likely will be competing at England’s Walton Heath Golf Club on May 27 for a spot in the field via sectional qualifying.
“I’d love to go back to the course where I won the U.S. Amateur,” said Molinari, “and I will do my very best to make sure I’ll be there.”
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.