FRANCESCO Molinari is hoping to feed off the energy of the crowds this week as the Italian returns to defend his BMW PGA Championship title at Wentworth Club.
The 36-year-old overcame Rory McIlroy down the stretch in nerveless fashion last year.
Victory on the West Course kicked off a career-defining run of form which included his Open Championship triumph at Carnoustie, a record-breaking Ryder Cup performance and the title of European Tour No. 1.
Molinari said: “This week has always been special to me, even before last year, but obviously last year made it extra, extra special.
“Obviously I’ve got beautiful memories from last year. The duel with Rory on Sunday, and finally getting my hands on the trophy – it obviously gave me a lot of confidence for the coming months after that.
“I was watching a video yesterday of the last few holes on Sunday, and you could see I was uncomfortable in that position.
“I think that was the first step forward to getting more comfortable in leading a tournament and closing it out.”
Molinari leads one of the strongest fields in the tournament’s long history, joined among others by the man who succeeded him as Open Champion in July, Shane Lowry.
The Irishman was honoured by the European Tour for his achievement at Royal Portrush two months ago, following Molinari onto the esteemed list of life honorary members.
Lowry said of his award: “It’s pretty cool, isn’t it. You start playing golf when you’re a kid and you don’t know how good you can be, even when you started playing as a pro. I didn’t know that I would get to this day but it’s pretty cool.
“I’ve joined a nice list of names, which is pretty good. Obviously, my heart lies with the European Tour – I’ll always be a member.
“I love coming back and I love playing in events like this. It’s an extreme privilege.”
“I love it here. I think this is one of my favourite events in the world. Every time I come here, the area around Wentworth – Ascot, Sunningdale – it’s just a lovely place to be.
“The golf course, I’ve always really liked. Even when they made the changes first back in 2010.
“I actually really liked it and I just thought it was quite a difficult golf course and I just loved it. It’s one of my favourite events of the year and I just love coming back.
“I’ve got quite a few events left this year, and they are all big events. I’m obviously No. 1 in the Race to Dubai now – and I want to stay there.
“But I’m going to have to play some good golf and I’m going to have to maybe win again.
“But I’m just going to go out like I’ve been doing all year, day after day and try and shoot as good a score as I can and see where it leaves me the at the end of it. First and foremost, I want to win the Race to Dubai at the end of the year.”
Billy Horschel and Patrick Reed, meanwhile, are among the American stars playing the BMW PGA Championship for the first time this week, along with Ryder Cup player Tony Finau.
The date change from May to September allowed them to fit the prestigious tournament into their schedules.
Both European Tour members, they are relishing the opportunity to play the famous West Course for the first time in the fourth Rolex Series event of the 2019 Race to Dubai
Horschel, who played in the 2007 Walker Cup against Rory McIlroy, as an amateur at Royal County Down, said: “I’m excited.
“ I’ve been trying to get over to Europe to play a few European Tour events over the last few years, and unfortunately hasn’t worked in the schedule.
“This being one of the key ones, I grew up watching this event on TV. This event has always been a soft spot in my heart.
“When the schedule worked out with the new schedules on both tours and moved back to September compared to May, I was like, go ahead, sign me up. I’ll be there.”
Reed, who began playing in Europe even before his Masters win at Augusta, in 2018, said: “It’s amazing here. I thought the golf course was a lot of fun.
“I thought it was challenging in parts. It’s one of these golf courses you have to work the ball both ways.
“You’ve got the greens that are very firm, very fast, yet you have fairways that are a little softer, so you hit tee shots and the ball doesn’t quite go as far and the iron shots seem to have a lot of bounce in them.
“It’s going to be a premium this week on hitting fairways and playing from the right spots because you can put yourself in some bad spots here on these greens.”