When the European Tour last came to Rome back in 2002, Francesco Molinari was a teenage amateur just pleased to make the cut and golf was a relatively unknown sport in Italy.
Fast forward 17 years and Molinari is a major champion , a Ryder Cup hero and the poster boy of this week's Italian Open. His achievements have helped boost golf's popularity as the country prepares to host the 2022 Ryder Cup on Rome's outskirts — an idea that would have been unthinkable two decades ago.
"Things have changed massively since 2002 when the tour was last here," Molinari said. "The buildup (to 2022) is going to go quicker than we think it will. It's going to be a crescendo of emotions."
As part of the Italian federation's Ryder Cup contract with the European Tour, the Italian Open has become part of the lucrative Rolex Series with a prize fund of $7 million.
Ten former major winners and 26 Ryder Cup veterans entered the tournament at Olgiata Golf Club, giving Europe's elite players a chance to reacquaint themselves with Rome.
"It ticks all the boxes, doesn't it?" said U.S.-based English player Paul Casey, a four-time member of Europe's Ryder Cup teams. "Probably the best food of any players' lounge in the world this week and best coffee. ... It's not an easy one for me to get to all the way from Arizona, but well worth it."
After years up north at venues in Milan, Turin and Brescia, the Italian Open is here to stay in Rome at least through 2022.
Olgiata will likely host again next year then the tournament will move to the Ryder Cup venue at Marco Simone Golf and Country Club in Guidonia, where — on a clear day — the dome of St. Peter's Basilica at the Vatican can be seen in the distance.
"Francesco Molinari has been doing a fantastic job personally in raising the profile for Italian golf globally but the fact that the national open will be in Rome, that the interest levels will start to grow and now the next time the Ryder Cup is played on European soil will be in Rome will hopefully capture the imagination of the golfing and the sporting public in Rome and in Italy," said Guy Kinnings, the European Tour's Ryder Cup director. "It helps just build the anticipation."
The European Tour announced this week that the dates for the 2022 Ryder Cup will be Sept. 30-Oct. 2.
The Marco Simone club is currently in the middle of a massive renovation. The entire course and practice facilities are being rebuilt and the clubhouse is also being upgraded.
"It's a very ambitious project," Kinnings said after an inspection visit this week.
A costly one, too.
The Italian golf federation had to scramble to find more funding after initial guarantees exceeding 100 million euros ($110 million) from the government fell through. The Ryder Cup project had been tied to Rome's bid for the 2024 Olympics but when mayor Virginia Raggi rejected the bid because of financial concerns in 2016 — a year after the Ryder Cup was assigned — there was a time when it seemed like the country might have to give up the golf event.
"All of that, if anything was going on, was before I arrived," said Kinnings, who assumed his position last year. "All I can say is that the federation hasn't missed a payment date since I've been working with them."
Redesigning the course alone will reportedly cost 11 million euros ($12 million), then there's the $70 million of Italian Open prize money to cover over the decade-long Rolex Series contract. The Italian federation has covered some of the costs with an 11-year, 40 million euro ($44 million) contract with Infront, the Swiss-based sports media and marketing company.
Infront has arranged for three different TV channels to carry domestic coverage of this year's Italian Open — RAI state TV, Sky Italia and GolfTV.
"Our commitment for the Ryder Cup 2022 project is not only to host an iconic sport event, but also to leave a legacy for Italy and the Italian people," said Gian Paolo Montali, the Italian federation's Ryder Cup head. "The 2022 Ryder Cup course will become a sporting 'pilgrimage' site that will continue to attract golfers for many years and will help develop economic income through golf tourism."
After delays, the restyling of the Marco Simone course began a year ago. Nine holes have been laid out and are now in the growing phase. The second phase begins this week and is due to be completed in May, allowing growing over the summer and leaving a full season before hosting the Italian Open in fall 2021.
"There have been some delays caused in the past by different reasons," Kinnings said. "This is the new, revised schedule, and everyone has bought into that."
The 2022 Italian Open will also likely be held at Marco Simone early in the season — giving players another chance to test the course before the Ryder Cup later that year.
"It's going to be absolutely mental, the Ryder Cup here," Molinari said. "Hopefully I'll be on the playing team. It would probably be the summit of my career."
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