MILAN — Francesco Molinari's road to major success started with a coffee.
When Molinari met elite performance coach Dave Alred at the start of 2016, the Italian golfer was ranked 78th in the world. Fast forward two years and Molinari is now ranked sixth and has won three of his past six tournaments, including last month's British Open.
"I was looking for a different figure in my staff," Molinari said on Wednesday, in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. "I was looking for someone who could help me get more out of my training, out of my practice. We had some common friends that got us in touch.
"So we just met in London for a coffee and we started chatting. I was curious to know more about him and what he did and he was curious to know more about me and my character and my way to approach golf and I think we both realized we were a good match and we started shortly after."
Alred had worked with some of the biggest names in sport, including other golfers such as Luke Donald and Padraig Harrington, and has been labeled "a genius" by rugby World Cup winner Jonny Wilkinson.
Alred's work centers around what he calls "the ugly zone" and making something that has become comfortable, uncomfortable, with practice sessions that most closely resemble the strains of competition.
"He's helped me in many ways," said Molinari, who was speaking from London. "I had a very good team around me already but we were probably missing someone like him, someone who does what he does. He makes my training sessions more interesting, more ugly — like he says — and just more productive."
That culminated in Molinari becoming the first Italian golfer to win a major when he clinched the claret jug at Carnoustie on July 22.
Playing alongside Tiger Woods, who caused a stir by taking the lead in the final round of a major for the first time in nine years, Molinari was overlooked for much of the final day.
But, having gone the entire weekend without a bogey, Molinari finished with a 5-foot birdie putt to win the world's oldest major championship.
"It was nice to see Tiger back," said Molinari. "He played really good on the front nine and then he made a couple of costly mistakes on the back nine but he was very good, he was very nice to me at the end.
"It was nice to be alongside him and it made that day even more special for me to win alongside one of my models and idols. It was even more special."
Molinari has history with Woods, having played against him in two Ryder Cups. Woods won in 2010 on the final day but Europe went on to win the trophy. Molinari's halved match against Tiger Woods at Medinah in 2012, where Woods missed a 3-foot putt when Europe already had retained the cup, gave his side outright victory.
The 35-year-old Molinari, who said "it would be nice to have another rematch" is hoping to have even more of an impact on this year's edition, which takes place at the end of September in Paris.
RELATED: How much Molinari, Open field won
"I don't know about senior member," he said with a laugh. "But yeah I feel different compared to the last time I played. I feel like I'm a better player and I feel like I can probably and hopefully help the team more than what I did last time.
"I think it's an extremely talented team with some really exciting young players so I'm really happy to be part of it."
Molinari, whose older brother Edoardo won the 2005 U.S. Amateur and played with him in the 2010 Ryder Cup, comes from a country known more for soccer and skiing than golf.
He was 12 and watching on TV when Costantino Rocca lost in a playoff to John Daly at the 1995 British Open at St. Andrews. That inspired Molinari to take up the sport and he hopes his win will have an even bigger impact, especially with Rome set to host the Ryder Cup in 2022.
"I think the coverage in the Italian press has been great so hopefully a lot of young kids will get interested in golf and will try to play at least once," added Molinari.
"I'm obviously trying my best to help golf be more popular in Italy so I really hope it makes a difference and I'll keep doing what I do to try and inspire the new generation."
Rocca was one of the first people to text a message of congratulations to Molinari, who hopes his victory goes someway to making up for Rocca's narrow defeat.
"He was super nice," Molinari said. "Hopefully I can see him at some point in the next few weeks to chat to him.
"He obviously went very close to winning the Open in St Andrews. So I really hope it was a nice way for him to close the circle. To see another Italian winning the tournament that he came so close to winning, hopefully it felt nice to him."
This article was written by Daniella Matar from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.