Open champion Francesco Molinari: 'It’s been an incredible journey’

Such was the measure of Francesco Molinari’s surprise to be in the Open champion’s chair with the Claret Jug by his side, the plane he had booked to return to London was already boarding at Edinburgh airport.

With a winner’s cheque for €1.62m about to be lodged on top of the €3.576m he had already bagged from his previous five starts, it is safe to say the Italian will not have any problems finding an alternative flight home.

The well-earned holiday that awaits before heading to America for the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational and PGA Championships as the newly-installed world number six and latest member of the major champions club will give Molinari, 35, time to reflect on his status upgrade but for now, the main challenge is getting over his incredulity at winning the 147th Open by two strokes at Carnoustie at the weekend and the quality of the field he surpassed with some brilliantly controlled golf.

I mean, it’s just disbelief,” said Molinari. “To look at the names on that Claret Jug, obviously, what can you say? It’s the best golfers in history, and to be on there, it’s incredible. For someone like me coming from Italy, not really a major golfing country, it’s been an incredible journey.

Whether Italy truly appreciates its first golfing major champion remains to be seen and Molinari was self-deprecating in his assessment of what it might take to displace his compatriots’ twin sporting passions of football and its beloved Formula One team with the prancing horse.

“It depends if Ferrari won today,” he joked. “If they won (Sunday’s German Grand Prix, which they did not) they’ll probably get the headlines.

“But, no, obviously, it would be massive news. It was big news. The last round already was big news in Italy. Obviously, to achieve something like this is on another level. Hopefully, there were a lot of young kids watching on TV today, like I was watching Constantino (Rocca) in ‘95 (at St Andrew’s) coming so close. Hopefully, they will get as inspired as I was at the time, watching him vie for the Claret Jug.”

Molinari did make yesterday’s front page of Italy’s famous pink sports daily newspaper Gazzetto Della Sport, earning the headline “Molinari Leggenda” with a strapline above that was almost as disbelieving as the new legend had been the previous evening. “L’Italia ha fatto…. Golf!”, crudely translated as “Italy has done... Golf!”.

If his homeland has yet to get to grips with the enormity of his achievement, the golfing world is well and truly up to speed. Molinari, who had arrived at Carnoustie as world number 15, not only came from three shots behind to outlast defending champion Jordan Spieth and the strong challenges of joint runners-up Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose, Xander Schauffele, and Kevin Kisner, he constructed his second bogey-free round of the weekend, a two-under 69,

playing alongside a rejuvenated Tiger Woods.

Woods, the winner of 14 majors and gathering momentum after years plagued by personal problems and four back surgeries, had manoeuvred himself into serious contention for the first time in the majors in a decade. And as he stormed into the outright lead for one brief moment on Sunday it looked like the 42-year-old was about to regain a grip on the sport he dominated from 1996 to 2008.

Yet with all the hullabaloo surrounding Tiger, Molinari ploughed on regardless, parring the first 13 holes and then grabbing two vital birdies on the inward nine to edge in front of the pack.

Tiger himself was great today. Really good sportsmanship with me,” said Molinari. “Obviously, there’s a lot more people (watching) if you’re grouped with him than if I’m playing with the... I can’t really say names, but some of the other guys. You know, I’ve done it before. I’ve played with him before in Ryder Cups and in big occasions, so I knew what was coming, and I was ready for it.

“Clearly, in my group, the attention wasn’t really on me, let’s put it that way. If someone was expecting a charge, probably they weren’t expecting it from me, but it’s been the same the whole of my career. I don’t really care too much about it. I care about the people around me, the work that we put in. They know how much we’ve all worked to get here.”

That Molinari tamed Carnoustie, the course in the Open rotation with the most fearsome of reputations, was another surprise element of the Italian’s victory, given he admitted to a less than wholesome relationship with the Scottish links in the European Tour’s annual visits as one of three courses that stage the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship every October.

“To be completely honest, it’s one of the reasons why I didn’t play the Dunhill Links in the last few years because I got beaten up around here a few times already in the past. It’s a really tough course. You can try and play smart golf, but some shots, you just have to hit it straight. There’s no way around it. You can’t really hide.

“Like I said, to play the weekend bogey-free around here, obviously I had done it at Wentworth for my win earlier this year (the BMW PGA Championship in May), but to do it around here, it’s even more impressive.”

Also telling was the one bright spot in Molinari’s pretty poor Open record in 10 previous attempts, his tie for ninth at Muirfield in 2013, when the tournament was last played on the sort of hard and bumpy ground that Carnoustie provided. Molinari admitted playing in the same final-day pairing as eventual champion Phil Mickelson five years ago had been influential. “I got here only Monday lunchtime from the States (after finishing second at the John Deere Classic) and walked a few holes, and I saw it was firm and fast and the rough wasn’t too bad. And it reminded me of Muirfield. Obviously, 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.

So I liked the way the course was playing, but, again, it’s a beast of a course. So I don’t think anyone feels too confident when they stand on that first tee at Carnoustie.

Now Molinari will stand on the first tee at Royal Portrush in 12 months as the defending champion and he has fond memories of his previous visit to the Dunluce Links.

“I played there in 2012 at the Irish Open. I still remember now I was paired the first two rounds with Darren Clarke who had just won The Open the year before, and the atmosphere was something else.

“So I’m sure it’s going to be a great championship, a great Open. I’m sure that — well, I’ve heard they’ve changed the course quite a lot. So hopefully by then, this will have sunk in, and I’ll realise what I’ve done.”

More on this topic

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