No one can accuse Open champion Francesco Molinari of being afraid of taking different routes on the road to success.
The Italian famously embraced the original and sometimes unorthodox teachings of his performance director Dave Alred, a policy which routinely takes him to the “ugly zone” in his practice regime.
It brought him a first major title at Carnoustie 12 months ago when he maintained his irresistible form from the European and PGA Tours and held off the likes of Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Justin Rose.
But now, as he prepares for the defence of his Claret Jug, Molinari is taking a different approach. He will not be at this week’s John Deere Classic, where he was runner up last year, or at the Renaissance Club for the Scottish Open.
His competitive preparations have long since been completed. When Molinari tees off at Royal Portrush on 18 July it will be fully 25 days since his last round on tour, at the Travellers Championship in Connecticut.
His 57th-place finish there was his sole outing since last month’s US Open, where Molinari posted his only top 20 since April’s Masters. Europe’s leading golfer in 2018 is lightly run heading into the final major of the men’s season.
But Molinari is convinced that his altered approach is the correct one. “It’s just acknowledging and recognising that coming into a tournament as a defending champion is different, and especially in a major,” he said.
“I think it is going to be important to have as much mental and physical energy as possible for the week.”
This means he will not be honing his links game in competition, instead he will be on the range at The Wisley club near his London home “trying to get everything as good as we can”.
Molinari will also be paying close attention to his mental approach: “I think it is going to be a case of trying to keep the expectations down.”
This is what worked for him at Carnoustie last year. It was a links where he had not enjoyed much previous success so there was little danger of getting ahead of himself despite victories at Wentworth and on the PGA Tour in the build up to the Open.
“Coming off so many good results [I was able] to just stay calm and stay patient. But in the end what really helped me was obviously the confidence from the wins I had in the previous weeks.
“When you go through those times, you are really high in self esteem and confidence and things just happen a little bit easier than normal.”
Next week the first task facing the 36-year-old will be returning the Claret Jug to the R&A. “Unfortunately it is time to take it back but it’s been an enjoyable 11 months,” Molinari said.
“Your name is on it, anyway, for ever. It’s nice to have the trophy at home but I don’t think it will be such a shock to give it back.
“It’s such an iconic trophy that even when you get it you know it’s not going to be for a long time,” he smiled.
The Claret Jug sat glistening on the table next to us as Molinari discussed his time as Open champion. “Actually, for me, it’s not gone that quickly,” he said.
“It’s been an intense 11 months. Yes it’s been obviously very good for the most part and its been very nice to have that trophy sitting in front of us at home.”
Much has happened in this period. There was a second PGA Tour win at Bay Hill but most notably a spirited but failed tilt at landing a Masters green jacket.
Molinari was leading deep into the final round until an eight-iron tee shot found Rae’s Creek at the par-three 12th. The uncharacteristic unravelling of his challenge was completed when he found more water at the 15th.
Woods surged through for his extraordinary, redemptive victory. It was a similar cast list to that at Carnoustie, where Molinari won by coming from behind.
At Augusta he faltered from the front. “It was obviously a very different situation,” he reflected.
“In some ways it was similar because it was windy and quite tricky and when you are leading, ideally you would want the opposite situation with more calm conditions and just an easier day.
“I think I fought well on the front nine without having my best game. Then unfortunately just a couple of mistakes on the back nine but, you know, I think if you put yourself in that situation, obviously, you are going to win some and lose some.
“It was the first time, really, that I was leading in a major entering the Sunday. At Carnoustie, Tiger made a run on the front nine then he made a couple of mistakes.
“I made a birdie on 14 and basically got the lead there. It was so late in the tournament that you don’t really have time to reflect on it or to think about it.
“It’s just four holes to go, so the Masters was very different because I got the lead the night before. You have more time to think about it,” the 36-year-old added.
Molinari’s quest is for constant golfing improvement. Under Alred’s programme – in tandem with swing coach Denis Pugh, putting guru Phil Kenyon and short game specialist James Ridyard – the mantra is better performance more than better results.
Naturally, improved golf should lead to more wins but the Molinari team philosophy is purely centred on upgrading his game, leaving tournament outcomes to take care of themselves.
“I learned a lot of things at Carnoustie and I think I learned a lot of things in Augusta,” he said.
“Obviously it is much more pleasant to learn in Carnoustie’s circumstances than in Augusta, where it is hard to take a loss. But it is sports and if you know you’ve done your best that is all you can ask of yourself.”
And now it is all about his Open defence in Northern Ireland. Molinari wants to keep expectations in check but suggests there are areas of his game that feel better than they did a year ago.
“On putting we’ve made some big progress, around the greens I think I’ve got a bigger range of shots,” he told the podcast.
“The long game is pretty much where it was. If I have to say one thing that’s been maybe missing this year and the last few months, it’s been the consistency of getting all the parts of the game firing at the same time.
“I was very close to doing it in Pebble at the US Open but then a couple of bad holes prevented me from contending on the Sunday.”
Naturally Molinari would love to be in the mix at the sharp end of next week’s championship, but he heads to Portrush with plenty of perspective, which is contributing to his different and lower key build up.
“It’s going to be an incredible experience for me to be there as a defending champion,” he acknowledged.
“It might be, hopefully not, the only time in my career when that happens and because of that I just need to make the most of it.”