Just over two years ago, Francesco Molinari was pretty much the hottest golfer on the planet.
Wins on either side of the Atlantic were followed by a maiden major victory in the 2018 Open and a perfect 5-0 performance in the Ryder Cup.
Then, with one sleeve in the Green Jacket, he dunked his tee shot at 12 in the water in the final round of the 2019 Masters and he’s hardly been seen since.
Injuries, a loss of form and relocating from London to the United States at the height of the pandemic have conspired to send the Italian tumbling down the world rankings. From fifth on the standings in September 2018, he is currently 173rd.
All of which makes his three-under first round at Torrey Pines somewhat of a surprise.
Molinari, who sat out last year’s US Open at Winged Foot, sits one shot adrift of early pacesetters Russell Henley and Louis Oosthuizen in the third men’s major of 2021.
If you're surprised by that, don't worry. So is he.
“The times I've been healthy, I was playing well and hitting the ball well at home,” said the 38-year-old. “But then I seemed to struggle recently with injuries here and there and struggling really to get some continuity. It's nice to be back and feeling good.”
Molinari’s older brother Edoardo got off to a good start of his own, opening with a one-under 70.
The pair famously combined to great effect for Europe in the 2010 Ryder Cup. However, this week is the first that they’ve spent any time together since Christmas in 2019, with Francesco now based in the US and 40-year-old Edoardo – who came through a qualifier to make his first US Open appearance since 2011 – living in their hometown, Turin.
“When COVID first hit, I was here [in America],” revealed Francesco. “I managed to fly back to London but then obviously I couldn't fly from London to Italy, and then we moved here, and he couldn't fly here. I don’t know, it's just been a weird year-and-a-half.
“We text and we talk pretty often, but obviously it's not the same, especially after such a long time. It's definitely the first time that we've been apart for so long, so it’s nice to see him.”