Francesco Molinari can’t be intimidated. He just can’t.
Being in contention at The Open Championship for his first career major did not do it. Competing at the notoriously difficult Carnoustie Golf Links, often referred to as “Car-nastie” did not do it. Having to chase down young legend and defending champion Jordan Spieth did not do it.
Even being in the final Sunday pairing with Tiger Freakin’ Woods did not do it.
And now the unintimidate-able Molinari is the Champion Golfer of the Year.
The 35 year-old Italian, the first from Italy to win on the major championship stage, somehow went the entire weekend bogey-free and overcame a gauntlet of furious, high-caliber competitors, shooting a final-round 2-under 69 to reach 8-under for the week.
Molinari prevailed by two strokes over Justin Rose, Rory McIlroy, Kevin Kisner, and Xander Schauffele.
Coming into the week, Molinari might not have been exceptionally well-known to more casual golf fans, with no victories, and just three top-10s in 35 prior major appearances, but those who had not heard of him at all have just not been paying attention as of late.
Molinari walked onto Carnoustie arguably as the hottest golfer in the world; he was 15th in the Official World Golf Rankings, and in his past five starts worldwide, he had two victories – one on the PGA Tour and one in Europe, in addition to two runner-ups. His pristine tee-to-green game made him the envy of the golf world, and the desire of golf gamblers everywhere.
On Sunday afternoon, he is the same thing he was on Thursday morning: very, very good. But now he has the Claret Jug to further prove it.
2018 OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP SCORING
FINAL TOP 10
1. Francesco Molinari -8 (-2)
2. Justin Rose -6 (-2)
2. Xander Schauffele -6 (+3)
2. Kevin Kisner -6 (+3)
2. Rory McIlroy -6 (-1)
6. Tiger Woods -5 (E)
6. Eddie Pepperell -5 (-4)
6. Kevin Chappell -5 (+2)
9. Jordan Spieth -4 (+5)
9. Tony Finau -4 (E)
9. Matt Kuchar -4 (+1)
NOTABLES IN TOP 20
12. Tommy Fleetwood -3 (+2)
12. Webb Simpson -3 (+2)
12. Ryan Moore -3 (E)
12. Patrick Cantlay -3 (-1)
17. Alex Noren -2 (+3)
17. Jason Day -2 (-3)
17. Adam Scott -2 (+2)
17. Zach Johnson -2 (+3)
17. Pat Perez -2 (E)
17. Charley Hoffman -2 (+2)
24. Bernhard Langer -1 (E)
24. Phil Mickelson -1 (E)
24. Stewart Cink -1 (-1)
24. Danny Willett -1 (+2)
28. Patrick Reed E (E)
28. Rickie Fowler E (+1)
28. Louis Oosthuizen E (+2)
35. Henrik Stenson +1 (-2)
39. Brooks Koepka +2 (-1)
39. Haotong Li +2 (+5)
51. Bryson DeChambeau +4 (-1)
51. Jason Dufner E (-2)
51. Paul Casey +4 (+1)
51. Tyrrell Hatton +4 (+1)
61. Lee Westwood +6 (+6)
61. Marc Leishman +6 (+6)
74. Rafael Cabrera Bello +8 (+1)
75. Kiradech Aphibarnrat +9 (+3)
OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP HIGHLIGHTS
BEST ACTION FROM CARNOUSTIE ON SUNDAY
OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP STAT LEADERS
1. Bryson DeChambeau – 379 yards
2. Lucas Herbert – 375 yards
3. Brendan Steele – 374 yards
1. Marcus Kinhult – 42/60, 70.0%
1. Erik van Rooyen – 42/60, 70.0%
3. Paul Casey – 41/60, 68.3%
3. Bernhard Langer – 41/60, 68.3%
1. Tommy Fleetwood – 55/72, 76.4%
2. Tony Finau – 54/72, 75.0%
3. Louis Oosthuizen – 53/72, 73.6%
3. Phil Mickelson – 53/72, 73.6%
3. Brendan Steele – 53/72, 73.6%
1. Michael Kim – 22
1. Paul Dunne – 22
1. Patrick Reed – 22
HOW FRANCESCO MOLINARI WON THE OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP
With his blazing recent form, including wins at the BMW PGA Championship, the European Tour’s flagship event, and the PGA Tour’s Quicken Loans National, Molinari was a popular Open pick heading into Carnoustie.
However, sitting at just even-par through two rounds, a tie for 29th place, the Francesco-chatter, quietly slowed. Then, a bogey-free 6-under 65 on Saturday vaulted Molinari into solo-fifth, granting him a Sunday pairing with 14-time major champion Tiger Woods.
Benign conditions had Carnoustie playing easier than it had in past Open Championships, but a moderate pick-up in wind speed combined with the pressure of a Sunday at a major championship, made Sunday’s finale the top-class challenge that has come to be expected. Contender after contender started to leak oil, and after a particularly brutal stretch late in the front nine from co-leaders Jordan Spieth and Xander Schauffele, the leaderboard boasted about 20 names that still had a chance.
The back nine took more victims; most notably Tiger Woods, who briefly took the solo-lead before a double-bogey on 11 killed his momentum. As the carnage continued, several marquee players, such as Rory McIlroy and Justin Rose, played themselves into the mix, while others waved the white flag.
Regardless of how up-and-down the Sunday leaderboard was, however, one name stayed constant: Francesco Molinari. Elite tee-to-green game intact, Molinari parred each of the first 13 holes, and then jumped into the solo lead with a birdie on the par-5 14th.
With three more pars on Nos. 15, 16, and 17, Molinari came to the last in a position where he could officially put away McIlroy and Rose with a par, and obliterate the chances of several others. Fueled off yet another fantastic approach shot, Molinari birdied 18, setting 8-under as the score to beat.
A bogey on 15 from Spieth all but eliminated the defending champion, and with two holes to go, Molinari held a one-stroke advantage over Schauffele, with nobody else any longer realistically in the mix.
Schauffele, the reigning PGA Tour Rookie of the Year, then added a bogey of his own on 17, and when his attempt at a very unlikely eagle on 18 landed short, Molinari officially became the Champion Golfer of the Year.
WHAT WINNING THE OPEN MEANS FOR MOLINARI
An unbelievable two-month stretch for Molinari culminated with a Claret Jug, among the greatest prizes in sports. His sixth professional victory brings him to No. 6 in the Official Golf World Rankings, and puts him in lead position for PGA Tour Player of the Year, which is incredible considering that fewer than three weeks ago, he had never won an event on the PGA Tour.
As mentioned earlier, Molinari’s major championship resume had been unimpressive, but the best of his previous majors had been recent, as he finished runner-up to Justin Thomas at last year’s PGA Championship.
If he keeps form, he will stand a good chance of even bettering that runner-up when he tees up next month at Bellerive Country Club for this year’s PGA Championship.
Molinari is also a lock to make his first European Ryder Cup team since 2012, and to reach the Tour Championship – the final leg of the FedExCup Playoffs, for the first time ever.
SUNDAY’S STARS AT CARNOUSTIE
Nobody’s star shined brighter than Molinari’s on Open Championship Sunday, but he was far from the only player who fared well in Carnoustie’s toughest round.
Eddie Pepperell began the final round 1-under par, eight strokes out of the lead, but he went out early and posted a 4-under 67 that got him to 5-under for the tournament.
The affable 27-year-old from England, who admitted after his round that he perhaps had drank too much on Saturday night, was the clubhouse leader for a long time, and for quite a while, his 5-under score looked like it might stand. It was not until Justin Rose birdied 18 to reach 6-under that Pepperell was eliminated. Pepperell’s field-low round moved him 30 spots up the final leaderboard, into a share of sixth.
Speaking of Rose, the former U.S. Open Champion shot a 2-under 69 that allowed him to finish runner-up. Despite needing a birdie on the 18th hole on Friday to make the cut on the number, Rose’s 64-69 weekend meant a 15th career top-10 finish in a major.
Rory McIlroy, the Open Champion at Royal Liverpool in 2014, started the final day in a tie for sixth place, but appeared to play himself out of contention after early bogeys on 2 and 5. However, the four-time major winner bounced back with birdies on 9 and 10, and then sunk a long eagle putt on 14 to to suddenly tie for the lead. He parred out from there to shoot a 1-under 70 – one of the few red scores on the leaderboard, and tie Rose’s clubhouse lead.
The lead did not stand, but a 69-69-70-70 week was amazingly consistent for McIlroy, who has rarely put four good rounds together as of late, especially in majors.
SUNDAY COLLAPSES AT CARNOUSTIE
After three rounds in uncharacteristically good conditions, those who were not around for Carnoustie’s nastiness in 1999 and/or 2007, the last two times the Open was played there, finally got to see how difficult the course could be.
Many players were soundly defeated by the course, but nobody had a more notable struggle than defending champion Jordan Spieth. A 54-hole co-leader, Spieth appeared to have worked his way past his recent struggles and was the favorite to leave Scotland with the Claret Jug.
Despite having three career major championships to his name, though, Spieth never looked anywhere near comfortable on Sunday. The accomplished 24-year-old was one of just two players in the field to not play a single hole under par, and with three bogeys and a double, Spieth shot a 5-over 76 to finish in a tie for ninth place.
One of Spieth’s 54-hole co-leaders was Kevin Kisner, who despite not having a top-50 finish anywhere since April, had posted rounds of 70 or better on each of the first three days. Looking for his first career major championship, the man who held the solo 54-hole lead at last year’s PGA Championship dug himself a deep early hole with a double bogey on 2 and a bogey on 3.
Kisner settled down and was even in the large 6-under back nine co-lead, but he just could not make a putt down the stretch, and had to settle for a 3-over 74, putting him among the runner-ups.
The worst round of the final day came from a young man who was just one stroke out of the lead on Thursday. An abysmal 11-over 82 for Zander Lombard dropped the 23-year-old South African 54 spots down the final leaderboard, moving from 13th into a tie for 67th.
Five bogeys and three double-bogeys marred Lombard’s Sunday, but the man who had made just 4 of his past 18 cuts coming into the week should still be happy with his performance for the week. He will always have the memory of his third-round eagle-2 on the 18th hole, the only eagle on 18 since it became a par-4 in 1975. It was referenced numerous times on Sunday as the late players tried to catch Molinari.
It has still been over a decade since his last major championship victory, but Tiger Woods made the Open Championship his closest call in a long time.
The three-time Champion Golfer of the Year looked, by far, the most comfortable player on the course early-on, as two birdies and no bogeys over his first 10 holes moved him into the solo lead. Surprisingly, the strength of Tiger’s game over the first three days was his play off the tees, but after aggressive drives helped get him out front, Tiger went conservative and poor tee shots with irons on 11 and 12 imputed a double bogey-bogey stretch.
He played the final six holes a bogey-free 1-under to shoot an even-par 72. An especially memorable shot from Tiger came on his last drive of the day. Needing a birdie, combined with a Molinari bogey, Tiger pulled off a good drive, despite becoming flustered and finishing one-handed after a spectator screamed on his backswing. A stellar approach gave him a great shot at birdie, but the attempt skidded just to the side.
Still, Tiger finished T6, his first top-10 in a major since his T6 finish at the 2013 Open Championship. He is still not prime Tiger, but he made another great leap in his comeback this week.
OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP QUOTABLE
“A lot of things pop up in your mind, but you need to erase them and focus on what you can control and what you can. I knew it was going to be tough, but everyone is going to struggle a bit so I could use it to my advantage and just did a great job at that.”
– Francesco Molinari