Teammates no more: MoliWood now battling for European No1

Star pairing are one and two in the rankings and are paired together at British Masters

It is easy to be the best of friends with a player who is exactly as bad as you, since as PG Wodehouse (handicap 18) put it: "Few things draw two men together more surely than a mutual inability to master golf, coupled with an intense and ever-increasing love for the game." But whatever it was that first brought Tommy Fleetwood and Francesco Molinari so close together, it obviously was not that.

Molinari is ranked first on the European Tour’s Race to Dubai and Fleetwood second. There is a big gap but Fleetwood may yet catch his mate by the time they tee up at the DP World Tour Championship next month.

A fortnight on from their 4-0 sweep in the foursomes and fourballs against the USA in the Ryder Cup, Molinari and Fleetwood were playing in the opening round of the British Masters at Walton Heath. They are playing against each other rather than together, not that you would have guessed it from watching. Molinari joked before the round: "I might not talk to him and give him a cold shoulder and see how he takes it," but they were happily yakking away as usual. Their Ryder Cup teammate Thorbjørn Olesen was the spare wheel in the threesome.

The grouping was not an accident. The British Masters needs all the publicity it can get. It was dropped from the Tour schedule between 2009 and 2015 because no one wanted to sponsor it, then rescued when Sky signed on as a partner and “presenting sponsor”. It was a four-year deal and this is the last of them.

It is not clear whether the event will continue in 2019 but the negotiations are continuing and it would help if everything goes well this week. The organisers, then, were understandably keen to feed off the enthusiasm generated by the Ryder Cup.

They had even knocked up a “Moliwood” mock-up of the Hollywood sign, 3ft tall and 15ft wide, which was a plucky attempt to lend a little of Le Golf National’s glamour to this heather-strewn patch of the Surrey flatlands, where the distant roars are not from the spectators’ applause but the cars on the M25.

Molinari and Fleetwood are not the only close friends on the Tour but there is something about their double act that has caught the public’s imagination. It is partly that they have both been playing so well but also that they are both so happy to laugh at themselves and with each other.

Bundling them both into one group with Olesen left the field looking a little lopsided, which must have been why, when Molinari and Fleetwood walked to the 1st tee, the crowd poured towards that corner of the course as though the ground had tilted beneath their feet. There were 16,787 fans at Walton Heath and it felt as if almost every one of them was gathered around the 1st hole. The irony being, of course, that because it was the one group everyone wanted to watch it was also the one group hardly anyone could.

A clear view was so hard to find that a marshall who had parked up in a hurry to try to usher people back off the crosswalk returned to his buggy to find three men had swarmed on to his vehicle and were standing on the back of it so they could see over everyone else’s heads.

At least Fleetwood was worth making the effort for. His round of 67 was especially good given the sunny weather turned with the group and they played the back nine in stiff wind and spitting rain. He was five-under through 16 before he finally dropped a shot with a bogey at the 17th, where his tee shot ended up in the drinks holder of a greenskeeper’s buggy. It could have been worse – there was a pint of beer in the slot next to the one the ball fell in.

Fleetwood picked the dropped shot right back up again with a final birdie, his sixth, at the 18th. That left him tied for the lead with Matt Wallace and Eddie Pepperell. He said he would have been happy just to break par, so was delighted with five under.

Molinari’s day was patchier, his play scratchier but then he has said how tired he is feeling at the end of a long season and that he has been struggling with a back injury. It was so bad during the Ryder Cup he could barely bend over to tie his shoe laces.

He was one under through nine but dropped another two shots with bogeys at the 13th and 16th to finish one over. He has a big lead in the Race to Dubai but is flagging. This may be one week when he would rather not see Fleetwood succeed. – Guardian service

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