A player's first experience of Augusta is always special and no doubt feels unique, but nobody in this week's field can tell the same story as Francesco Molinari. When he made the virgin walk to the Masters first tee, one of the other players in the three-ball happened to be Tiger Woods.

It was everything the then 23-year-old had dreamed of, except he was dressed in a white boiler suit and was not permitted to play a shot.

It was 2006, Woods was the reigning champion and Francesco's brother, Edoardo, was given the honour of playing in the same group because of his status as US Amateur champion. It was an unusual scenario in every sense.

Now, as the British Open champion, Italian Molinari looks back and shakes his head at the bizarreness of it all.


"I was a professional by then, in my second year on the European Tour," he recalls. "It was funny, because when my brother, Edoardo, and I were young we'd promised each other that if either of us ever won the Amateur or US Amateur, the other one could caddie in the first major we qualified for.

"In 2003, I got to the semifinals at the Amateur at Troon. Edoardo was not very happy when I got knocked out. I am two years younger, but turned professional first. However, when Dodo — he is called that because when I was very young I couldn't pronounce 'Edoardo' — won the 2005 US Amateur at Merion he said to me 'a deal is a deal'.

"It was odd because I was getting established as a pro at that stage. I'd had two top 10s in successive weeks the month before and was feeling good about myself, but I knew this was too good a chance to turn down. And it was my brother. We'd made a vow.

"I was a proper caddie that week, went where the caddies went, did what they did. I didn't go to the clubhouse. I was in their uniform and knew my place, but all the time I was thinking, 'I will be back here as a player'."

Molinari could soon swap the white suit for a green jacket. Not only did he triumph at Carnoustie last July, but he finished sixth in the US PGA Championship, having finished second in that major the previous year.

Then he went on to become the first European to win five points out of five matches at the Ryder Cup. Molinari and Tommy Fleetwood — aka Moliwood — beat Woods in three matches that week.

Woods also played with Molinari in the final round at Carnoustie. The Milanese was the caddie who came back to haunt him.

"Yeah, Dodo was playing with Tiger, but I didn't talk to him much because I was so nervous," Francesco says. "I remember him speaking to me and I just mumbled something stupid. He holed out on the 14th with his second shot from a bunker and we were both like 'Wow!' 'How do I follow that?' Dodo asked me. I said, 'You can't — just aim for the middle of the green'."

Edoardo missed the cut, but Francesco took plenty from the experience.

"It was Dodo's week and I was just concentrating on helping him, but it acted as a complete wake-up call for me as a player and told me how much I had to improve. I went there thinking I knew it all. I didn't.

"I won a few weeks later and that was no coincidence. I finished in the top 20 at the Spanish Open and went to the Italian Open and felt really confident. It was my home tournament and it was hugely important in my career. But I'm not sure it would have happened without Augusta. I thought I'd qualify for the next year's Masters, but it ended up taking me another four years."

It is fair to say, Molinari, now 36, has underachieved at the Masters. But then, this wonderful ball-striker was in danger of being classed as a player who never truly fulfilled his potential. A round in the Wirral in 2014 changed his path.

"I remember the Open at Royal Liverpool on the Saturday, I played in the last round with Rory [McIlroy] and Dustin [Johnson], and I realised could play as well as I wanted, but I didn't stand a chance. That was a big turning point. It's all about perspective and how you take things. I took it like, 'If I want to keep doing this job and do it at a high level, I need to work as hard as I can and see if I can get closer to those guys'. Now when I go out, play with Brooks [Koepka] or Dustin or Rory or whoever you can name, I'm not really intimidated, because I feel like I can compete with them, even if I'm not hitting the ball 370 yards."

Of course, Molinari did not effect this staggering improvement on his own.

As well as his long-time coach Denis Pugh, the impact of his performance coach Dave Alred has been paramount. The Englishman is famous for helping Jonny Wilkinson become one of the best kicker's in rugby and Luke Donald in reaching world No1.

Alred's work with Molinari should be high on his CV.

"It was 2015 and I had just taken a huge decision to play more in the States," he says.

"Well, I was talking to Johnny McLaren, who is now Paul Casey's caddie, and he knew Dave through the work he did with Luke. Dave was the missing link from my team, that quickly came apparent to me.

"People have the wrong idea of Dave and what he does.

"It is certainly not repetition of hitting shot after shot or with Wilkinson, kick after kick. It is more unpredictable, more productive. He keeps you thinking, makes it less boring if you like.

"I didn't know what was coming when I meet up with him."

Molinari is now a big-time operator. The world No7 won the Arnold Palmer Invitational four weeks ago with a final-round 64 that might not be bettered for quality all season, and finished third at the WGC Match Play a fortnight ago.

There are players in his field who have made greater strides in the rankings in the last year, but as far as standing in the game, Molinari is easily the most unrecognisable from the player who finished in a tie for 20th last year.

"A lot of things have happened since then," he says. "I'm so much more confident. It's a unique course. There are a lot of holes where you can be aggressive, but it fools you. It tempts you and it is hard to know when to go for it and when not to.

"I've struggled there because of the greens, but there's been a huge improvement in that area and I cannot wait to see how I do. It is not just technique and having a better stroke, it is the trust I have in myself on the greens. Golf is all about self-belief. I have a lot of that now."

- Telegraph Group Ltd