Steady Molinari delivers Italy its first major champion
After yielding the easiest round of the 31 Open rounds it had hosted, Carnoustie stiffened up on Sunday. Strong breezes returned and with them unpredictable bounces along the fairways.
There was only one constant: Italy's Francesco Molinari.
Molinari went bogey-free over the weekend, capped by a final-round 69 in difficult conditions to win the Claret Jug by two shots over Justin Rose, Rory McIlroy and Xander Schauffele.
It seemed like anything could happen at Carnoustie on Sunday. That is, except a winner who cleared the field by two shots. The ability to avoid a dropped shot in breezy conditions - the only player in field to go bogey-free in the final round - will go down as one of the great performances in Open history.
"I knew it was going to be tough," said Molinari. "I knew everyone was going to struggle a little bit and I could use it to my advantage."
Molinari, 35, entered the week as the world's hottest golfer and he brought a familiar game to The Open. He went bogey-free in the final 44 holes to win the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth. He went bogey-free the final 28 holes of the Quicken Loans National in Washington D.C. Tournament host Tiger Woods presented him with the trophy that week and had a front row seat to the champion's game on Sunday.
"The way he played today was beautiful," said Woods. "Short game was on point. A lot of beautiful pitches to basically kick-ins."
For a brief moment, The Open looked like Woods' to lose. He made sand saves on Nos. 8 and 9 as the leaderboard crumbled around him. He held solo possession of the lead as he stared down his ball in a fairway bunker left of 10. He took a chance and went for the green, taking a huge swing that sent the ball sky high, over Barry Burn and onto the front edge of the green.
It was an electrifying shot and the Tiger of old was back.
It didn't last long. He found trouble left of the 11th fairway and compounded the mistake by missing his pitch short. He made double bogey and followed it up with a bogey on 12.
"A little ticked off at myself for sure," said Woods. "I had a chance starting that back nine to do something, and I didn't do it."
Carnoustie delivered an epic and unpredictable final round for the ages. Eddie Pepperell fired a 67 early, the day's lowest score, to post 5 under in the clubhouse. For the next few hours, that number looked like it could be good enough for a playoff. That is until Justin Rose stuffed it on 18 to get to 6-under, capping an improbable 10-under run on the weekend after needing a birdie on Friday just to make the cut.
McIlroy joined him at 6 under thanks to a long eagle putt at 14. He had a chance on 18 for another birdie to raise the bar to 7 under but couldn't convert.
"I don't really feel like it's a defeat," said McIlroy. "I have no regrets. I played the way I wanted to play this week.
"I just ran out of holes."
The winds at Carnoustie had the leaderboard swirling all day around its eventual champion. Molinari entered the day three shots out of the lead following a 5-under 66. But his nine pars in a row on the front nine weren't getting much attention as birdies and bogeys and doubles happened all around him. At one point, six players were tied for the lead at 6 under. Shots were dropped and gained all over the course. Kevin Kisner was the first co-leader to run into trouble, leaving a shot in the bunker on the second en route to a double bogey.
The other two co-leaders, Xander Schauffele and Jordan Spieth, ran into trouble soon after at "Hogan's Alley." The par-5 6th hole played dead into a stiff wind. After a bogey on the 5th hole, the defending Champion Golfer of the Year found a gorse bush with his second shot and had to take an unplayable lie. The player who made one of the most remarkable bogeys in major championship history a year ago at Birkdale compounded the error by three-putting for double bogey.
Spieth still had a chance on the back nine and was among those briefly tied for the lead at 6 under, but a three-putt par at the 14th hole sealed his fate. He finished tied for ninth with a final-round 76.
"When you put yourself in position enough times, it goes your way sometimes, it doesn't go your way sometimes," said Spieth.
It was Spieth's playing partner and 2011 classmate Schaufelle who had the best shot at catching Molinari. After his own double-bogey on the 7th hole he steadied himself and got back in the mix with a birdie on the 10th hole.
"Jordan and I got off to a weird start feeding off each other in the worst ways possible," said Schauffele. "And we kind of calmed the sails mid-round. I was just happy to have a chance to win with four or five holes to play."
When he hit a gorgeous tee shot on the par-3 16th, he had a golden opportunity to pick up a shot on the field. No one in the field had birdied the 251-yard hole all day.
He missed the putt and would go on to bogey the 17th hole. Meanwhile, Molinari was nails on the 18th tee and hit safely down the right side of the fairway and stuffed his wedge inside Woods to birdie the final hole and slam the door. Paired with Phil Mickelson in the final round of the 2013 Open at Muirfield, it was now his turn.
"That was a great experience to play with Phil in the last round and to see someone doing the job, getting the job done on Sunday."
His weekend steadiness drew comparisons to Nick Faldo's final-round at Muirfield in 1987 when he made 18 pars to win his first major. Molinari's last miscue came with a double bogey on the 17th hole of the second round, a remarkable feat at Carnoustie.
Molinari committed to playing the PGA Tour full time two years ago and his commitment has been noticed by last year's champion.
"It truly is hard work that paid off for Francesco," said Spieth. "I see him in the gym all the time ... grinding on the range ... seeing him work as hard as anyone else."
And now a new country from Europe has a major champion. His relentless effort in the U.S. paying off in spades across the pond.
"To look at the names on that Claret Jug," said Molinari." It's the best golfers in history, and to be on there, it's incredible. From someone like me coming from Italy, not really a major golfing country, it's been an incredible journey."
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