CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Twenty-three years ago, a 12-year-old Francesco Molinari was glued to the television at his home in Italy, he and his brother Edoardo watching their golf idol, Constantino Rocca, attempt to become Italy’s first major champion on the British Open’s most iconic venue, the Old Course at St. Andrews.
Molinari can still remember the emotional evening. Rocca holed a 65-foot birdie putt from the Valley of Sin to force a playoff against John Daly, raised his hands in the air and then fell flat on his stomach, pounding the ground with his fists in passion.
More than 2,000 miles away, it was euphoria in the Molinari household.
“There was such great joy when he made that putt,” Molinari said. “And then it was just tears.”
Rocca lost the Claret Jug by four shots to Daly that Sunday in 1995. Also denied was Italy, a country hoping for its major breakthrough in a sport that had yet to yield it much success of any kind.
But nearly a fourth of a century later, the tears flowed again, in the small seaside town of Carnoustie and certainly back in Italy. In this instance, though, they were of a different variety. Not from the accustomed major disappointment, but rather the unfamiliar jubilation.
And it was Molinari, now 35 and easily the country’s best current hope, who finally brought a major title home.
“It’s just disbelief,” said Molinari, who birdied Carnoustie’s infamous final hole to shoot 2-under 69 alongside 14-time major winner Tiger Woods and then waited anxiously to see if his 8-under 276 would hold up.
When it did – by two shots over Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose, Kevin Kisner and Xander Schauffele – Molinari embraced caddie Pello Iguaran Valle and putting coach Phil Kenyon on the practice green. He then made his way to the recorder’s holding room, where he sat on a white couch, put his head in his hands and wept. Surrounding him were photos of recent Open champions. Molinari knew his image would now be joining them. And his name on the championship’s prestigious trophy.
“To look at the names on that Claret Jug, obviously, what can you say?” Molinari said. “It’s the best golfers in history, and to be on there, it’s incredible.”
Even more incredible was the fact that Molinari played his final 37 holes of this championship without a bogey.
Carnoustie, widely considered the toughest test on the Open rota, was mostly a stranger for 54 holes. Firm and fast fairways. Soft and receptive greens. Little help from Mother Nature. And low scores, especially on Saturday when 31 players shot in the 60s and three – Schauffele, Kisner and Jordan Spieth – shared the third-round lead at 9 under. (Woods got into contention, as well, with his Saturday 66.)
But on Sunday, helped by high winds blowing out of the west, the beast returned. Just six players broke 70. The final two groups combined to shoot 13 over, including Spieth, the reigning Champion Golfer of the Year, who shot 76, his worst closing round in a major, and didn’t make a single birdie in the final round. Schauffele managed just two birdies of his own.
“We just were in the strangest spots possible on the golf course,” said Schauffele, who saw his hopes of winning his first major dashed with a bogey on the penultimate hole that was caused by a poor second shot just shy of the gorse.
Spieth found himself in the gorse on the par-5 sixth hole and made a double bogey after missing a 3-foot putt. It was one of a few missed putts from inside 5 feet for the 24-year-old three-time major winner.
“Throughout the round, I felt the most comfortable that I’ve felt at a Sunday in a major in my life, in all reality,” Spieth said. “It just simply didn’t go my way, mainly because I just didn’t make anything.”
With the leaders struggling, a door was left open for Woods, who held the solo lead at 7 under after Schauffele doubled the par-4 seventh hole. Before Sunday, the last time Woods had led in the final round of a major was the 2011 Masters. But a double at No. 11 and a bogey at No. 12 helped put major victory No. 15 on hold.
“I did everything the way I thought I needed to do it to win the championship,” said Woods, who did manage to climb to 50th in the world and secure his spot in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
Said McIlroy, whose eagled at the 14th helped him notch his fourth straight top-5 finish at the Open: “For a while, I thought Tiger was going to win. My mindset was go and spoil the party here.”
Pars on each of his final four holes, though, kept McIlroy from doing so. Most of the other 11 players to have led or been within a shot of the lead on Sunday faltered, too. But Molinari was more than up to the task.
“I knew what was coming, and I was ready for it,” Molinari said.
After all, he had faced off against Woods twice in Ryder Cup singles matches. Woods got the better of him in 2010 at Celtic Manor, though the Europeans edged the Americans by a single point that year. Two years later, at Medinah, the U.S. were again defeated by a point, and it was Molinari halving Woods in the anchor match.
Molinari wasn’t going to be in awe of the Tiger effect.
“It was very good energy,” Iguaran said. “He was also very concentrated. I felt really good from the very beginning. … Normally he’s really under control of his emotions, and he was today. He was really calm, which was not easy in those conditions.”
As Woods roared up the leaderboard on the front nine, Molinari opened with 13 straight pars. No two were more important than the final two in that span, a 90-foot two-putt at the par-4 12th and a seemingly impossible up-and-down from behind the par-3 13th green that was capped by a 7-foot make.
“It definitely was his short game (that won it for him),” Woods said. “I mean, he chipped it beautifully.”
In Patric Dickinson’s 1951 book, “A Round of Golf Courses,” he describes the 13th green as a “tiny tilting green with a bunker in it that makes it look like a green biscuit with one giant bite out of it. It is criminally easy to take 4, and with what is to come you must get your 3.”
Molinari stole his 3, and then took his own bite out of Carnoustie down the stretch. He hit a pitching wedge into the green at the vulnerable short par-5 14th and made a two-putt birdie. He then safely hit the green and took his par on the next three holes.
And unlike 1999 when the fearsome finisher claimed Jean Van de Velde as its most famous victim, it was Molinari delivering the punishing blow with a 60-degree wedge from 112 yards to 5 feet.
“I can’t find words right now,” tweeted Edoardo Molinari.
Molinari’s victory was hard to explain. But then again, it wasn’t.
Eleven years ago, Molinari made his major-championship debut right here at Carnoustie. At that time, he was known more as the little brother of Edoardo, the 2005 U.S. Amateur champion. And he did little that week to change that.
“There was nothing comfortable about that week,” said Molinari, who missed the cut after shooting 76-74.
In his next nine Open starts, Molinari notched just one top-10 finish with three missed cuts. Not exactly a sparkling record in the game’s oldest major.
“If someone was expecting a charge, probably they weren’t expecting it from me,” Molinari said.
But maybe they should have been. Molinari arrived at Carnoustie as the world’s 15th-ranked golfer but arguably the hottest. He had two wins, including a record-setting eight-shot victory at the Quicken Loans National, and two runner-up finishes in his last four starts.
The world-class ballstriker – second to Dustin Johnson in strokes gained tee-to-green on the PGA Tour – had also found his groove on the greens, as well. Last March at Bay Hill, he started working with putting coach Phil Kenyon, and in his last two Tour starts where strokes-gained data was recorded, he finished 17th and 27th in the field in strokes gained putting.
“He’s worked really hard on improving all aspects of his putting – technically, green-reading, his routine,” Kenyon said. “He was ready for it today. It’s great to see the hard work pay off.”
With his landmark victory, Molinari moves to sixth in the Official World Golf Ranking. He now has seven career victories between the PGA and European tours. (Rocca won five times on the European Tour, but never in the U.S.) Molinari also has one more top 10 in majors than Rocca, with four, and moved to No. 1 in the European Ryder Cup points standings. This year’s matches in Paris should be Molinari’s third Ryder Cup appearance, which is the same number that Rocca played in.
Some could call this a classic story of prodigy finally surpassing icon.
“To achieve something like this is on another level,” Molinari said.
“Hopefully, there were a lot of young kids watching on TV today, like I was watching Constantino in ’95 coming so close. Hopefully, they will get as inspired as I was at the time.”
Surely there is an entire generation of young golfers back in Italy hoping to become the next Francesco Molinari one day. More than 2,000 miles away. In front of their televisions. Tears in their eyes.
Only this time, they were watching their hero being crowned major champion. Gwk
(Note: This story appears in the August 2018 issue of Golfweek.)