|The 148th Open Championship, Royal Portrush|
|Dates: 18-21 July|
|Coverage: Live text updates and in-play clips on BBC Sport website, with live commentary on BBC Radio 5 live and daily highlights on BBC Two.|
Francesco Molinari believes he has the resilience to cope with the expectation that surrounds being the defending champion as he seeks to retain the Claret Jug at Royal Portrush this week.
Molinari, 36, became the first Italian to win a major when he won the Open Championship at Carnoustie last year.
He will begin his defence alongside Bryson DeChambeau and Adam Scott at 09:58 BST on Thursday.
“I am well aware of the challenges,” said Molinari.
“There are a lot of guys capable of winning the trophy and all I can do is try my best, try to put up a good defence and be in contention on Sunday.”
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The world number seven continued his stellar form last year as he finished tied for sixth at the US PGA Championship before becoming one of the stars of Europe’s Ryder Cup-winning team in October.
At first, Molinari admits he was not prepared for the added pressure that came with being a major champion but has learned to deal with the extra commitments from sponsors and the media, the expectation on him to perform on the course and being recognised more frequently away from it.
Such is Molinari’s popularity, a giant mural of the defending champion is plastered across the wall of an ice cream shop run by an Italian family in Portrush, down the road from the course.
“It changes your life, really, especially for a guy like me that likes to go a little bit under the radar and doesn’t really need the attention,” explained Molinari.
Molinari, who said he had a couple of drinks out of the Claret Jug after his victory but was “very, very careful” with it, added: “Expectations kept rising almost every week I was playing.
“I think now I’ve learned to do a decent job of managing that. Obviously, this week is going to be extra special, and any week that you defend is special – especially at a major championship.
“My approach is going to be to try and enjoy as much as possible, like I did at the Ryder Cup last year, try to almost soak in the energy from the crowd, and help me perform as good as I can.”
Molinari ‘mentally stronger now’
Molinari looked set to add to his maiden major victory when he led with seven holes to play on the final day of the Masters in April.
But a double bogey at the par-three 12th, where Molinari’s tee shot found water, paved the way for Tiger Woods to win his fifth Green Jacket, with the Italian dropping back to tied fifth.
However, he feels those experiences will be beneficial in the future and is pleased with the way he is approaching this week in Northern Ireland.
“It’s a lot stronger now,” said Molinari of his mental resilience after working with performance coach Dave Allred.
“Mentally, the way I approach things is very different. Before I was stuck in a box that partly was built around me by other people and in part by myself.
“It just helped me to understand I created that box and there was no reason I wouldn’t be able to get out of that box. That’s made a big difference.”
Molinari does have experience of this Irish links, having played the opening two rounds of the Irish Open in 2012 alongside local favourite Darren Clarke, who had won The Open the previous year.
“I remember the first hole,” he said. “If you had seen the first hole, there were lines of people, both sides of the fairway all the way up to the green.
“Just the roar he got when he showed up on the first tee is definitely one of the loudest I’ve ever heard on the golf course.
“It was just an incredible atmosphere. They were welcoming Darren back with the Claret Jug. I think that’s a taste of what we’re going to get this week.”
Fleetwood counting on ‘home’ support
Molinari’s Ryder Cup exploits came alongside partner and good friend Tommy Fleetwood, who was briefly in contention at Carnoustie last year before falling away to record his best Open finish of tied 12th.
The Englishman is hoping he can count on “home” support once again to enhance his chances of being among the frontrunners in Northern Ireland.
“I’ve been lucky over the years to have really good support,” he said. “I’ve always had a really good connection with the crowds and the friends that watch.
“It’s something that’s always come pretty naturally, but something that you can never take for granted and I do love playing in front of a lot of fan support.
“Obviously it’s the island of Ireland, but it’s still a home Open, it’s still the British Open. This is as much support as you’re going to get.
“It has its advantages – you might be struggling, those guys are going to try and carry you, and you might be playing great and you just have to roll it out and that’s the whole point of being home.”
Fleetwood admits 2019 has not been as “hot” as his previous two years in terms of form, with his highest-placed finish in the year’s first three majors a tie for 36th at the Masters in April.
But the world number 20 is not putting himself under any pressure to win an elusive first major, and says he has time on his side.
“I’m 28, your career is a long time,” added Fleetwood.
“We’re not tennis players or football players. But at the moment I’m just about reaching what should be my peak year.
“For sure every time I’m practising or playing or prepping, majors are always going to be there and always the ones that everybody wants to win.
“But putting the urgency or putting too much pressure on yourself is not going to do yourself any favours.
“Just keep doing things as well as you possibly can and hopefully, one, two, three majors… hopefully at least one comes along.”