Nerveless Francesco Molinari plots steady course to Claret Jug

With some of the most controlled, nerveless golf seen in the final round of a major championship for quite some time, Francesco Molinari plotted his way to victory at the 147th Open Championship last night.

As the endgame to the third major of the year ebbed, flowed, swirled and see-sawed on a fascinating day of drama at Carnoustie, it was the little Italian who kept his head level and his game on an even keel to eke out a final-round, three-under-par 69 to reach eight under par and claim the biggest victory of his career by two strokes.

Rory McIlroy was part of a four-way tie for second place at six under alongside England’s Justin Rose and two of the three American 54-hole co-leaders Xander Schauffele and Kevin Kisner, who with defending champion Jordan Spieth had taken a two-shot cushion into the final round but failed to produce a winning final 18 holes.

Both Kisner and Schauffele shot three-over 74s, while Spieth fell to a tie for ninth with a closing 76 at four under. 

Rose was the pick of the quartet of runners-up, following his 64 on Saturday with a 69 yesterday, while McIlroy shot a closing 70 having briefly been in a share of the lead at six under following a 40-foot eagle putt at the par-five 14th, only to par his way home.

The Irishman was not the only one to flirt with glory and this week in Scotland will go down as the major championship in which Tiger Woods at 42 restored belief after four back surgeries in the last three years that he still has the ability to challenge for a 15th major title of his career.

Starting his round at five under and playing with Molinari, Woods reached seven under after six holes and found himself in the outright lead at that mark at the 10th only to double bogey the 11th, his eventual 71 leaving him in a tie for sixth alongside fellow American Kevin Chappell and Eddie Pepperell of England, whose closing 67 was the round of the day in the most challenging winds of the tournament.

Molinari, who started the week ranked 15 in the world, also coped admirably with the conditions. If Saturday’s third round was all about holing birdies and moving into contention, as he had done with a six-under 65, yesterday’s final round was very much a case of holding course and hanging on to what you had gained 24 hours earlier.

Molinari did that best. At 35, he had shown no inkling that the Open Championship was a tournament he was in shape to win, a tie for ninth in 2013 at Muirfield his previous best finish in 10 starts before this week.

Tellingly, Muirfield had been the most recent Open to be played in the sort of sun-baked conditions faced at Carnoustie this week and with his previously debilitating putting dramatically improved after starting to work with performance coach Dave Alred, the Italian had recorded two wins and two runner-up finishes in his previous five starts.

A superb ball-striker, his accurate long game was a point of difference on Carnoustie’s relatively narrow fairways and combined with that enhanced putting, it was a recipe for Italian success, Molinari happy to par the first 13 holes of his final round to stay at six under as the lead above him changed hands on multiple occasions.

When he birdied the 14th he was out in front and though Schauffele, last out and playing with Spieth, joined him there with his birdie at the same hole, trouble at the 16th cost last year’s PGA Tour rookie of the year. 

He bogeyed as Molinari coolly birdied the last to go to eight under with his second bogey-free round of the weekend. 

All that was left to do was wait for his rivals to follow him home.

“I couldn’t watch Xander play the last two holes, to be honest,” Molinari said. “That’s why I went to the putting green because I probably would have felt sick watching on TV. So big credit to my wife (Valentina) that watches me all the time. I don’t know how she does it. I couldn’t do it.

“Just disbelief, to be honest. It’s amazing to stand here with the Claret Jug. I knew I was coming in with some good golf. My record around here was terrible. So that didn’t make me too optimistic about the week, but I just tried to not think about it and focus on hitting good shots day by day.

“To go the weekend bogey-free, it’s unthinkable, to be honest. So very proud of today. Very proud of, obviously, playing with Tiger was another challenge because of the crowds and everything. But I felt really good this morning. When I came here, I felt I was ready for the challenge. Obviously conscious that it could have gone either way, but I knew I was going to do my best today.”

McIlroy, encouraged by his best finish in a major since his back-to-back victories in 2014, enjoyed playing his part in a dramatic final round and also the return to major championship contention of Tiger Woods, who eventually tied for sixth place in his first Open since 2015.

“With the Tiger we have to face, he does things that maybe he didn’t do 10, 15 years ago. 

“But it’s still great to have him back. It’s still great for golf. It will be interesting to see going forward, but this was his first taste of major championship, I don’t know, drama, I guess, for quite a while. Even though he’s won 14, you have to learn how to get back. I’m relearning. I feel like I’ve won quite a few recently, but you still have to relearn to deal with it. Today was a good day for both of us with that, I guess.”

For McIlroy, thoughts have turned not just to next month’s PGA Championship but also to next year’s Open at Royal Portrush when the oldest major returns to the Antrim coast for the first time in 68 years after making its Championship debut in 1951.

“I can’t wait. It would be nice to go in there with a Claret Jug. It’s my third, fourth top five in a row at this tournament. So I play this tournament well. I have done for the last few years now, and I’m excited to play an Open Championship at Portrush. That will be unbelievable.”

Right now, though, the moment belongs to Molinari.

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