The making of an Open champion
Even as Francesco Molinari strode purposefully down the 18th fairway at Carnoustie in the 147th Open Championship, there were no fewer than seven players within a shot of his lead.
Worse still, Xander Schauffele, two holes behind and level with the Italian, had a putt from 15 feet for a two at the 16th.
This was a final day of an Open for the ages. Has there ever been a championship since the very first in 1860 when so many high-calibre players have stuck around for so long at the top of those famous yellow leaderboards?
In recent memory, only Muirfield in 2002 can compare. On that day, Ernie Els came out on top after a four-man, four-hole play-off with Thomas Levet, Stuart Appleby and Steve Elkington.
One shot back were Padraig Harrington, Gary Evans and Shigeki Maruyama. A further stroke adrift were Thomas Bjorn, Sergio Garcia, Retief Goosen, Soren Hansen, Scott Hoch and Peter O’Malley.
But with all due respect to that particular cast, it does not compare with Molinari’s rivals here.
In no particular order: Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth, Justin Rose, Tiger Woods, Schauffele, Kevin Kisner, Matt Kuchar, Tommy Fleetwood, Eddie Pepperell, Kevin Chappell and Tony Finau.
All were in the hunt at various stages of the afternoon, many of them until the bitter end.
At one stage, as the leaders approached the turn, Americans held the top four positions and Molinari looked to be treading water, a bit-part actor as the Hollywood stars traded blows in the quest for the Claret Jug.
And yet Molinari outlasted them all. He hit the front by making his first birdie of the day at the par-5 14th and thereafter was drawn level with but never overhauled. He eventually finished two shots clear of Schauffele, Rose, McIlroy and Kisner.
He did so in a way that was utterly true to the way he has played the game for much of the last 14 years since he turned professional in 2004.
After double-bogeying the 17th on Day 2, he played the remaining 37 holes of the championship without dropping a single shot.
There were eight birdies over the weekend and on Sunday he compiled a Nick Faldo-esque final round – except that, crucially, there were two late birdies, including one at the last.
That gave him rounds of 70, 72, 65 and 69, eventually good enough to see off the game Schauffele, winner of last year’s Tour Championship on the PGA Tour.
Molinari is far from the best athlete on tour or the strongest or the tallest or the longest or the best putter. Hailing from Turin, nor is it the case that he grew up steeped in golf.
The 35-year-old, who spends much of the year living in London and working with his long-time coach Denis Pugh at The Wisley, won this Open by outlasting the competition.
He won by grinding his rivals away one by one by the relentless excellence of his play.
Over his career, modest putting has cost Francesco Molinari the weight of titles that the quality and consistency of his long game would otherwise have earned him.
Here, he was repeatedly asked the question from three, four, five and even six feet – and on every single occasion he came up with the answer. That was admirable.
While the birdie on the 18th was flawless, it will be the 2-iron from 226 yards into the wind at the 17th that should be regarded as the defining blow of this quite exceptional championship.
Only the best ball-strikers can hit such a shot and Molinari was at the very limit of his power, if not his talent.
Arrowed towards the flag, it climbed on the breeze before dropping on the far side of the bunker and trickled down to the safety of the green beyond and below.
To say that Molinari is in the form of his life would be an understatement. While he has twice represented Europe in winning Ryder Cup teams, at Celtic Manor in 2010 and Medinah two years later, as well as winning a WGC in China in 2010 and finishing tied-2nd in last year’s PGA, this summer has been on a different level again.
He came 25th in the US Open then won his first PGA Tour title at the Quicken Loans, before finishing 2nd at last week’s John Deere Classic. In fact, he was still competing in Illinois late into Sunday evening, UK time.
And now The Open. That is three wins and two runners-up finishes in his last six starts.
Not to mention the title of Champion Golfer of the Year.
In a year when Italy failed to reach the World Cup finals, Molinari has become the Azurri’s first major champion in a sport that barely registers in that football-mad country.
In September, at the Ryder Cup, Europe will now look to the preternaturally calm Molinari to lead his continent from the front.
His Open win has put an end to a sequence of five successive American major champions. Europe can once more dare to dream.
And to judge by Molinari’s flawless play down the stretch at Carnoustie, home hopes will be in the safest of hands.
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