There was plenty of brilliance in the final round of The Open. Francesco Molinari’s patience however trumped all of it.
No one noticed Francesco Molinari. It didn’t help that his playing partner over the last weekend at The Open Championship was a certain Tiger Woods. Clad in his trademark red on the final day, driving, chipping and putting like the 14-time Major champion that the world remembers, Woods had the entire golfing world’s rapt, undivided attention. And when he took the lead all on his own, with less than nine holes left in the tournament, complete chaos broke out at Carnoustie as unprecedented crowds surged behind Molinari and Woods.
Playing with Woods can be nightmarish for accompanying players who aren’t used to the huge galleries that the pre-eminent player of this generation attracts. Molinari, though, had some idea of what to expect: he’s played in the same group as (against) Woods at the Ryder Cup in the past. Just a few weeks back, Molinari accepted the winner’s trophy from Woods at the Quicken Loans Open on the PGA Tour—an event that Woods hosts. It was Molinari’s debut win after close to 180 starts on the PGA Tour.
Woods wasn’t the only one making a run: at one point on Sunday, no less than six players were tied for the lead. There was Ulsterman Rory McIlroy, who came out of nowhere after smacking a 59-foot eagle putt on the par-5 14th hole; defending champion Jordan Speith who seemed intent on taking the Claret Jug back home with him; Justin Rose, who made a clutch putt on his 36th hole to make it to the weekend, shot a phenomenal seven-under 64 on the third day and looked like he was destined to win. Xander Shauffele, PGA Tour’s rookie of the year in 2017, seemed determined to break on to the big stage. Finally, Kevin Kisner, who’d led for most of the first three days, and Kevin Chappell joined the party at six-under.
In this carnival, Molinari went unnoticed; starting the day with three shots off the lead, the Italian made no progress for the first 13 holes, but crucially, didn’t drop a single stroke either. “Clearly, in my group, the attention wasn’t really on me, let me put it that way,” Molinari said. “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.”
Then there was Molinari’s self-admittedly poor record on links courses. He’s been avoiding playing the Alfred Dunhill Championship on the European Tour since 2012. The tournament—that’s played on three courses which include Carnoustie—has always been a dispiriting experience for Molinari, and the best he’s ever done is a 35th-place finish. He’s been beaten up by Carnoustie so badly that approaching The Open, all he wanted to do was get out without being mauled by the course. As it turns out, that focus on staying out of trouble and ensuring pars is precisely what worked on the final day when the wind finally blew in and the field had a tough time getting to the hardest pin positions of the week.
When he birdied the 14th after 13 straight pars, Molinari had the lead which he added to by sticking a wedge to within 5 feet on the 72nd hole. “Look at the names on that Claret Jug,” Molinari said, staring at the most coveted trophy in golf. “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.” Italy has its first Major champion. On the home front, the talented Shubhankar Sharma, the highest-ranked Indian golfer, made his first cut in a Major Championship and acquitted himself admirably. Sharma shot a pair of even par 71s and two-over 73s to finish four-over for the event tied 51st place along with Bryson De Chambeau, Jason Dufner, Paul Casey and Kevin Na. The youngster who celebrated his birthday on the penultimate day has derived a great deal of confidence from his performance. “I was happy that I finished very well to make the cut. The last two rounds were pretty enjoyable as well. This is the best birthday present that I have ever got for myself. I’m going to take one week off, gather my energies and get ready for the World Golf Championships—Bridgestone Invitational in August. I feel like I am learning a lot this year. I am just hoping to continue playing the way I have been playing. I just want to focus on every event that I play in, keep on playing and keep on learning,” he said after the final round.
The story of the 2018 Open Championship, though, is the resurgence of Woods. No one, not even the man himself, as he admitted in his post-match press conference, expected to do so well, so early in his comeback. The difference in perspective is obvious in Woods who’s spent months in bed and unable to swing a club. He lost the lead when he made a double-bogey on the 11th hole after needing four shots to reach the green. His approach from the fairway hit a spectator left of the green, and his first pitch shot didn’t reach the putting surface. Another missed fairway led to bogey on the 12th hole. At the end, Woods finished in tied-sixth place—a result he would have relished at the beginning of the year. “I know that it’s going to sting for a little bit here, but given where I was to where I’m at now, (I’m) blessed,” Woods said after his final round. And looked like he meant it.
A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game.