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The wet spring in Europe was good for ducks, cinema owners and greenside rough, but Edoardo (Dodo) Molinari, playing a practice round in the hills above Madrid a couple of weeks ago, was interested only in the rough. Wielding his sand wedge like a spatula, he flipped his golf ball once, twice, three times, until it nested in the long grass instead of settling to the ground. He then tried to chip his ball a few feet onto the green, so it could trickle down to the flagstick.
Dannazione! The flange of his wide-open clubface sent the ball rocketing across the green. Dragging another ball over with his clubhead, Edoardo flipped it into a suspended lie, took a smooth, three-quarter swing and whiffed completely. The slender Italian—whose short game, by the way, is more than commensurate with his current position at No. 40 in the World Ranking—flashed a bemused smile and tried again. This time his ball hopped like a flea before tunneling into even deeper grass.
Laughing now, Edoardo, 29, turned to his younger, meatier and slightly higher-ranked brother, Francesco, 27, who was practicing mid-range putts to a tube of lip balm. Edoardo fired off a short burst in Italian. "Chicco! Sai come giocare questo colpo?" Which Francesco answered by grabbing his own wedge and throwing down some balls. Three demonstration shots later all of Francesco's big-swing chips had plopped on the green and trickled toward the hole, and Edoardo was well on his way to getting it. His big swings, like his brother's, now produced dainty flop shots that stopped near the hole.
"I told Dodo he needed to be brave and hit it harder," Francesco said on his way to the next tee. "Drive the clubhead through the grass, and the ball will pop out nice and soft. But if you try to hit it high and soft—pffft!" He paused a beat before adding: "You get a lot of those kinds of lies at the U.S. Open."
Indeed, you do. It was from just such a lie, 28 years ago, that Tom Watson secured his only U.S. Open title by chipping in for birdie on the 17th hole at Pebble Beach. The Molinari brothers—who were 16 months and minus-five months old, respectively, when Watson darted onto the green with his club pointed at the sky—are hoping for something like that to happen to them next week, when the Open returns to the Monterey Peninsula. And not just hoping for it; practicing for it. "When you play the U.S. Open for the first time, you get shots you've never seen before," Edoardo says. "Shots from tight lies, shots from deep rough, shots to hard greens. The only place you can really practice those shots is at the U.S. Open, but you can take advantage of similar conditions at other tournaments."
It should surprise no one that the Molinaris, who have only 17 major championship appearances between them, imagine themselves dueling Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson down the stretch at Pebble. (Young players dream.) What's surprising is that Woods or Mickelson can probably picture it too. In the past 18 months the Molinari brothers have raced each other up the World Ranking like sports cars on the Alpine roads above their native Turin. Francesco set the pace last year with five top threes on the European tour and strong finishes in the majors, including a 13th at the British Open and a tie for 10th at the PGA Championship. Edoardo, playing on Europe's Challenge tour after a lackluster rookie season on the Euro tour, passed his brother and reclaimed his tour card with three Challenge tour victories and a playoff win over Robert Karlsson at Japan's richest tournament, the Dunlop Phoenix. The brothers then took the checkered flag in tandem, winning the 2009 Omega Mission Hills World Cup for Italy—a country with an estimated golfing population of 100,000. Tellingly, when Dodo sank a three-footer on the final hole to win the Cup, he celebrated by running and leaping around the green with his arms outstretched, à la Watson in '82.
Chicco simply watched, amused.
Do you smile at their nicknames? Edoardo is Dodo because his little brother couldn't pronounce the name properly as a toddler. Chicco comes from Cecco, a common diminutive for Francesco.
The resemblance to the Marx Brothers ends there. The Molinari kids were let onto the fairways of the Circolo Golf Torino when they turned eight, enjoying afternoon outings with their father, Paolo, a dentist, and their mother, Micaela, an architect (now retired). Francesco, although younger, was physically stronger and had a bit more, as they say in Italy, sangue bollente—hot blood. "We were quite different when we were kids," Edoardo recalls. "Francesco used to get very angry on the golf course, and I was calm. Now it's almost the other way around. He's calm and quiet, while I'm more extroverted and passionate."
The brothers, who speak fluent Spanish and English in addition to Italian, were dissimilar in other ways. Francesco spent hours on the practice range, perfecting his swing, while Edoardo wore out the practice green with his putting and chipping. As a consequence they developed into curiously complementary golfers. Francesco became a ball-striking machine, a golfer with so much control that his tour caddie, Jorge Gamarra, says, "I can't remember the last time I lost a golf ball with him. I think it was three years ago." Edoardo, on the other hand, turned into your classic feel player—an erratic ball striker who could break opponents' hearts with his scrambling. "When Edoardo had a hot putter he was unbeatable," says the Molinaris' London-based swing coach, Denis Pugh.