Francesco Molinari’s first taste of major championship golf was caddying for his older brother at the Masters.
But 12 years on, he was the Molinari saving the pars and making the putts under duress, and he is no longer under the shadow of any Italian golfer after his pressure-proof performance at this year’s British Open.
At age 35, Molinari gave Italy its first victory in a major on Sunday by outplaying a tightly packed field that included the defending champion Jordan Spieth, a resurgent Tiger Woods and the leading European players of Molinari’s generation: Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy.
While star after star fell back, Molinari maintained a steady course. And although a Woods victory, after all his health and personal challenges, would have been a comeback tale that transcended golf, that was not Molinari’s concern.
“I was competing against all the other guys as well, not only against him,” Molinari said.
His final-round score, 69, allowed him to finish with an eight-under-par total of 276: two strokes ahead of Rose, McIlroy, Kevin Kisner and Xander Schauffele, and three strokes ahead of Woods, Eddie Pepperell and Kevin Chappell.
Internally, the magnitude of the moment must have been difficult to navigate for Molinari at Carnoustie Golf Links, which has been the scene of some of the most extreme reversals of fortune in the game’s long championship history. It is also a course Molinari has even avoided in the past.
“I mean, there was everything to make someone nervous,” Molinari said.
But externally he displayed nothing but cool, going without a bogey over the final two rounds on what is widely considered the most difficult course on the British Open rotation.
“The course bit me a few times the first couple days,” Molinari said. “But to go bogey-free over the weekend on a track like this is incredible.”
Carnoustie was ripe for the attacking on Saturday, with light winds and relatively soft conditions after Friday’s rain. But on Sunday it was full of its traditional snarl. The wind returned, drying out the fairways and demanding constant adaptation from the combatants.
“I think Carnoustie showed its teeth today,” said Jean Van de Velde, the Frenchman who blew a three-shot lead on the 72nd hole of the 1999 Open at Carnoustie. “Hats off to Francesco, because he really played well. He made a couple of very good ups and downs, which is part of playing links golf. But he was also very consistent. He kept it all together remarkably well.”
Of the eight players in the final four groups on Sunday, only Molinari finished under par.
He started the day three shots behind the American co-leaders: Spieth, Schauffele and Kisner, who were at nine under. But as the leaders faltered, the focus soon shifted to Molinari’s pairing with Woods, who took the outright lead at seven under as they finished the front nine.
At 42, Woods remains golf’s biggest star even without having won a major championship in 10 years, or any tournament in five. The buzz and gallery following Woods continued to grow as he made a scrambling par on the 10th hole after a full-force blast from a fairway bunker to the front edge of the green.
But a wayward drive on No. 11 and a flubbed flop shot led to a double bogey that dropped Woods out of the lead for good (he also bogeyed the 12th). Alongside him, Molinari maintained his composure and an unblemished scorecard, with par after par after par.
“He’s always been self-contained,” Van de Velde said. “What is remarkable about Francesco is the way his putting has changed over the last year or so.”
His older brother Edoardo was once viewed as the family’s best putter, but Francesco has altered his putting technique, activating more of his upper body, while also attempting to upgrade his mental game.
He hired Dave Alred, a British performance coach who worked with the former rugby stars Rob Andrew and Jonny Wilkinson and has also worked with golfers including Luke Donald and Padraig Harrington. One of Alred’s leitmotifs is creating practice settings that mirror the intensity and randomness of competition.
Molinari credited Alred or his new sang-froid under pressure, and both men were on the putting green on Sunday before Molinari headed to the first tee.
“He’s a personality and a figure that I was missing,” Molinari said of Alred. “I think he pushed us all a little bit more.”
Molinari had nary a three-putt on Sunday, but he did have to scramble on occasion. On the sixth hole, he put his drive into a bunker, blasted out, hit a 2-iron into another bunker, blasted out to five feet and sank the par putt.
“Saving the par on 6 was massive,” Molinari said.
He did not make his first birdie until the par-5 14th, and he made his final birdie at No. 18 after a memorable second shot downwind with his sand wedge that stopped rolling five feet from the cup.
That gave him a one-stroke lead over Schauffele, a 24-year-old from San Diego who outplayed Spieth, the most successful 24-year-old golfer from anywhere, in their final pairing.
“Jordan and I got off to a weird start, feeding off each other in the worst ways possible, and we sort of calmed the sails midround,” Schauffele said. “I was just happy to have a chance to win with four or five holes to play.”
Spieth’s putting, which has prevented him from winning since his British Open victory last year, was again a liability. But he also struggled with his ball-striking in the wind, making too many visits to the rough and even one visit to a gorse bush on No. 6 that forced him to take a penalty drop. He finished with a 76, tied for ninth place.
Schauffele had misadventures but was still in contention until his bogey at No. 17 gave Molinari a two-stroke cushion.
When Schauffele’s approach shot landed well short of the pin on the 18th green, Molinari began hugging the members of his team and his wife, Valentina, who was crying behind her dark sunglasses.
“It’s been a long journey really, and now obviously you see the end result,” Molinari said, cradling the claret jug awarded to the Open champion. “And when you are holding this, it changes a few things. I got a lot of help from all the team, and I think the last few weeks, the last month, it has just been confidence.”
Edoardo Molinari was the more successful of the brothers as an amateur, winning the U.S. Amateur in 2005 and playing the Masters the following year with Francesco as his caddie.
They were teammates on the European Ryder Cup team in 2010, but Francesco has taken his game to a new level this season.
He won the BMW P.G.A. Championship on the European Tour in May, outdueling McIlroy in the final group. He won his first PGA Tour event this month at the Quicken Loans National in Potomac, Md. He then finished in a tie for second last week at the John Deere Classic in Silvis, Ill.
Though he had never won a major, his name was on many a short list coming into Carnoustie. More important, his name is now on the claret jug, putting an end to the Americans’ five-major winning streak and adding spice to the Ryder Cup, which will be played in Paris in September.
Italy will host the Cup for the first time in 2022, and Molinari has a unique place in his country’s golf history. Until Sunday, the closest an Italian had come to a major championship was when Costantino Rocca sank a 65-foot putt from the Valley of Sin at St. Andrews on the 72nd hole of the 1995 British Open, only to lose a playoff with the American John Daly.
Rocca congratulated Molinari on Twitter, saying in Italian, “A grand demonstration of strength of character and concentration.”
After all the final-round, final-hole madness at Carnoustie in recent years, Molinari restored a sense of order and calm. It wasn’t irresistible theater like Van de Velde’s collapse in 1999 or Harrington’s playoff victory over Sergio García in 2007. Instead, it was Molinari who was irresistible.
“For the first time I felt I was ready for it,” Molinari said. “It could have happened. It could not have happened, but I knew I was going to do what I needed to do. Obviously playing with Tiger makes it even more special. I couldn’t have written it any better.”