FRANKLIN, Tenn. – The lowest point for Arizona State and Giulia Molinaro is an easy spot to find on the calendar.
It was September 2010, and the Sun Devils were playing in the NCAA Fall Preview tournament in Bryan, Texas.
Actually, what’s left of their team was playing there. ASU coach Melissa Luellen had two players turn pro and was forced to dismiss two others going into the 2010-11 season, leaving her with Molinaro and Carlotta Ciganda.
Molinaro’s game was in grim shape.
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“We were thinking, ‘Are we going to have a team?’ said Arizona State associate head coach Missy Farr-Kaye. “She (Molinaro) was crying. I asked her if she was ready to make some changes.
“That was the moment when she became what we call coachable. She started to soak up everyting Melissa and I were working with her on. She was like, ‘OK, give it to me.’ From that moment on, it has just been this way.”
Farr-Kaye swept her hand up in the air, pointing toward the Vanderbilt Legends Club clubhouse.
Luellen and Farr-Kaye rebuilt their program, bringing in six newcomers in January 2011 to remarkably get the seven-time NCAA champions back to last year’s Division I Championship tournament, where they finished 17th.
“It’s just bad luck,” Molinaro said. “Things happened at the wrong time. Melissa and Missy did an amazing job of finding a team so fast to go back together. We’re doing well, and not long ago we didn’t have a team. I’m just lucky. They’re great girls.”
While Luellen and Farr-Kaye resurrected the program, Molinaro did the same with her game. The player with the international pedigree slashed her stroke average like it was on sale, going from 74.83 as a junior to 72.28 coming into this year’s championship.
To this point, Molinaro (whose first name is pronounced “Julia”) couldn’t climb any higher. An even-par 72 Thursday on the sun-hardened and windswept Legends Club North Course has Molinaro tied for the lead at 4 under 212 going into the final round. She shares the lead with Oklahoma’s Chirapat Jao-Javanil, one stroke ahead of second-round leader Brooke Pancake of Alabama and LSU’s Tessa Teachman.
What would it mean to win her final college tournament?
“It would be the icing on the cake,” said Molinaro, whose team is eighth, still in contention 10 strokes back of Alabama. “Just amazing. My goal was top 10 would be good, top five would be very good. Winning is a dream.
“Can I? I think I can.”
Golf and family have made Molinaro a world traveler of Gary Player proportions, the kind of life decades beyond the reach of someone not quite 22.
Born in Camposanpiero, Italy, Molinaro’s parents brought her to Kenya when she was a baby where her father worked in the tourism industry.
She’s spent most of her life there, a golf resort called Leisure Lodge on the Indian Ocean coast as her back yard, though golf has taken her around the world. She’s competed on five continents, in Kenya and places like Argentina, China, Japan and across Europe and the United States.
“I do consider myself very lucky for where I’ve been and what I’ve done,” Molinaro said.
Luellen and Farr-Kaye are lucky Molinaro doesn’t have an overly mischievous nature.
Back when Arizona State’s team was first whittled down to just Ciganda and Molinaro, Ciganda was visiting Molinari in Kenya.
“I Skype-called them and Carlotta thought it would be funny to say, ‘Coach, we’re not coming back,’” Luellen recalled. “But Gulia said, ‘No, that’s not funny.’ Giulia was the voice of reason that day.
“Obviously, we will be forever grateful to her. But she came to ASU to learn and to improve her golf, and those goals have been accomplished.”
Luellen said Molinaro, a major in tourism management and development, will graduate with honors. She plans to turn pro in October and will either make the Phoenix area her base for a run at the LPGA Tour or return to Italy to play in Europe.
But first there is one more championship to try to win for Arizona State. Five ASU players have won NCAA individual titles, most recently Azahara Munoz in 2008.
“I don’t think she’s got to shoot a super low number,” Luellen said. “She just has to play solid and not get ahead of herself. Just enjoy her last day of college golf. You can’t get it back. She has no choice but to enjoy it.”