Form and class combined as Francesco Molinari achieved his boyhood dream to win The Open at Carnoustie, writes James Toney.
Molinari produced a bogey-free round under the most extreme pressure to end on eight-under, two strokes clear of the field, and become the first Italian to win a major golf title, 23 years after Costantino Rocca went so close at St Andrews.
In ten previous appearances at the world’s oldest major the Italian had missed four cuts and only once has he finished inside the top 10 – back in 2013.
But few players are in richer form than the 35-year old, who won his maiden PGA Tour title by a mammoth eight strokes last month and claimed the biggest European Tour crown of his career at Wentworth in May.
“I feel disbelief. It is amazing to be here with the Claret Jug,” he said.
“I knew I was coming in with good golf but my record here was terrible so I was not optimistic about the week. I did not want to think about it and just focus on hitting the shots.
READ MORE: Magical Molinari wins The Open
“To look at the names on the Claret Jug, they are the best in history. For me, to come from Italy, it has been an incredible journey.
“If Ferrari win, they get the headlines but hopefully this is still massive news. To achieve something like this is on another level. Hopefully, there are a lot of kids watching on TV today and they get as inspired as I was.”
— The Open (@TheOpen) July 22, 2018
He started the day three shots back from leaders Jordan Spieth, Kevin Kisner and Xander Schauffele and kept his head while all around were losing theirs.
It was an afternoon of undiluted sporting drama, with plot lines dismissed as implausible by most scriptwriters.
Tiger Woods rolled back the years for the second straight day, producing a swaggering front nine as he surged to the top of the leaderboard. It seemed fate this group would produce the Champion Golfer as so it did, just not the one expected.
Woods’s playing partner Molinari kept his head down and maintained his focus, he was not interested in playing a supporting role.
The 14-time major champion ultimately finished three shots back from the Italian, a double bogey at 11 and bogey at 12 ultimately denying those who wanted to write a fairytale story.
Molinari picked up a birdie on the 14th to put himself top of the leaderboard – which at one point was crowed with six players who couldn’t be separated.
But a brilliant and nerveless 18th – a hole that has been the undoing of so many at Carnoustie over the year – sealed his victory, his first birdie there this week.
He went to the putting green to prepare for the play-off but when Xander Schauffele, his nearest rival, dropped a shot at the 17th, meaning he needed an eagle at the last, it was all over.
“Tiger was great. There are a lot more people if you are grouped with him than if you are playing with some of the other guys. I have done it before so I knew what was coming.
“I have avoided playing in the Alfred Dunhill Links in the last couple of years. I have been beaten up around here in the past and I don’t like that feeling. To play the weekend bogey-free around here is impressive.”
Justin Rose, who needed a birdie at the 18th on Friday to make the cut, finished in a tie for second with Rory McIlroy, whose charge ignited, flickered and ultimately faded. Americans Kevin Kisner and Schauffele joined them two shots back of Molinari.
Then came Woods and England’s Eddie Pepperell, who posted the best round of the day with a 67. Scotland’s Sam Locke won the Silver Medal for leading amateur.
Five tournaments that forged a major champion
Francesco Molinari arrived in Carnoustie as arguably the most in-form golfer around but perhaps his mixed record at The Open meant he was overlooked.
After missing the cut at the Players’ Championship in May, the 35-year old has gone on a wonder run, with three wins and two seconds in his last six tournaments.
Here’s a look at five tournaments that laid a foundation to his win on the Angus coast, where he became the first Italian to win a major championship.
John Deere Classic (Second) – July 12-July 15
Michael Kim wins the John Deere Classic on the PGA Tour a week before The Open but Molinari is second after an impressive final round, finishing eight shots back.
“Everything is coming together now,” he said, without knowing what was to come.
“Last year I didn’t play before The Open; I went to Birkdale to study the course, and it didn’t work out. I had to play an event I hadn’t played in the previous four years, and thought it would be good to keep it going right until The Open.”
It proved a good strategy.
Quicken Loans National (winner) – June 28-July 1
He had never won a PGA title but Molinari produced a brilliant eight-under-par final round to win in dominant fashion – eight shots his huge advantage of Ryan Armour at the TPC Potomac at Avenel Farm, a tournament hosted by his final round playing partner Tiger Woods.
“The thought was just to keep pushing, keep making birdies and don’t give anyone a chance,” he said.
“I played great, I’m looking forward to the weeks ahead.” Did he know something we didn’t?
US Open (tied 25th) – June 14-June 17
Molinari finishes 11 shots back of winner Brooks Koepka, in a tie for 25th. That was his fifth top-30 finish at the US Open since 2009.
Italian Open (second) – May 31-June 3
Francesco Molinari had won his home tournament in 2006 and 2016 but just missed out on a third win at the Gardagolf Country Club, finishing one shot behind Denmark’s Thorbjorn Olesen.
“I’m super happy,” said Molinari. “It’s been a great week. I scored better than I played all week to be honest, I’m super happy with my form.”
BMW PGA Championship (winner) 24 May-27 May
This was his fifth and biggest European Tour win, another nerveless final round securing him the biggest cheque of his career and a two-shot victory over Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, now a fellow Champion Golfer.
“This is the most significant win of my career,” he said, perhaps not knowing what was going to follow a few weeks later. “Hopefully this gives me a chance at the Ryder Cup, I’ve been on two winning teams and it hurts to watch on television.”
We don’t think captain Thomas Bjorn will be leaving this in-form Italian out somehow!
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