Italy’s Francesco Molinari is likely not a name familiar to the casual golf observer. In fact, for a time Francesco wasn’t even the best known golfing Molinari, as his older brother Edoardo won the 2005 US Amateur. But the younger Molinari developed a reputation as a superior striker of the golf ball, and this year has seemed to crack the code with his short game, having won on both the Euro and American PGA tours and finishing second at the John Deere Classic prior to the Open Championship.
And now he is The Champion Golfer of the Year.
Before we get to the particulars, a tip of the hat must go to the R&A and the greens keeping staff at Carnoustie. As we previously discussed, Carnoustie is a difficult but fair test of golf, and with the proper climate conditions, it delivers everything that a championship track should. As it turned out, Mother Nature provided a variety of backdrops (rain Friday and nearly no wind to speak of on Saturday), but a welcome (at least for fans of the Open Championship) “fresh breeze” on Sunday (topping out at the 25 mph mark) made for an wild day of golf.
And there were no complaints from the field, no USGA jackets scurrying around the course or answering queries on TV … are you watching there in Fair Lawn, NJ?
Going into the weekend, Kevin Kisner was the surprise co-leader – surprising in that he arrived at Carnoustie in less than optimal form, not having posted a top 20 finish in months. But he putted spectacularly on the slower fescue greens, and found himself tied with 2015 Open champ Zach Johnson at 6 under par.
And then Saturday came. The lack of wind rendered the course nearly defenseless – Justin Rose fired a 64, while defending champ Jordan Spieth and the aforementioned Molinari each carded 65. But the biggest eruption came from a certain feline-monikered golfer named Eldrick Woods, who, after two rather indifferent even par rounds, practically broke social media with an electrifying 66.
Still, that found him 4 shots behind Spieth, Kisner, and rising star Xander Schauffele, all of whom finished at 9 under. Molinari was 3 back, and would be paired with Woods for the final round.
Sunday brought a lot of wind and for awhile, an unlikely leader in The clubhouse in England’s Eddie Pepperell, who is as close as golf gets to having a Renaissance Man. Eddie went around in 67 despite, as he openly admitted on Twitter, suffering from the after effects of a night on the town. That put him at 5 under, which for a long time looked like a possibility for a playoff.
This came about as a result of the three leaders shifting their games in reverse and returning to the pack. Kisner’s putting abandoned him, Schauffele realized that he was leading golf’s oldest championship, and Spieth – well, with Jordan Spieth, one never knows what he’ll get. On Sunday, he took an ugly double on #6, and it was all downhill from there.
So for a brief time on Sunday, the stars aligned f.or the Tiger Woods worshippers of the world. The Big Cat had taken sole posession of the lead on 7 and on the 10th hole, he hoisted a 155 yard wedge shot from a nasty fairway bunker that no other person on the planet could have imagined trying to the front part of the green to save par. Commentators Dan Hicks and Johnny Miller were hyperventilating. “Is this the year 2000 again?,” wondered Hicks.
No, it wasn’t. Woods hit a wayward iron off the tee on 11 and an even worse second that fortunately (for him) struck a spectator and bounded back in play towards the back of the green. Faced with the choice of playing a safe chip leaving a 12 putt for par or attempting a high-risk flop shot that even at the height of his powers would have a less than 50% chance of succeding, Tiger, perhaps feeling some hubris from what he pulled off on 10, choose the latter. It didn’t work, and his chances of winning greatly diminished from that point on.
But it was a thrilling exhibition of his ability and, of course, a reminder that he creates as much buzz as any sporting figure in the world. At the same time, it also revealed a 42 year old golfer attempting to return to past glory but not quite being able to close the deal. As Rory McIlroy stated, Tiger just doesn’t scare the field anymore. That’s not to say that he can’t or won’t win again- his 6th place finish put him into the WGC event at Firestone, a locale whose confines are as friendly to him as Wrigley Field’s are to the Cubs -but it’ll be a helluva lot harder to do.
While all this was going on, Molinari, playing alongside Tiger (who later described Molinari’s play as “beautiful”), quietly went about his business, grinding out a Nick Faldo-esque 13 consecutive pars before making birdie on 14 to take the lead along with Schaffele, who showed a lot of moxie after an indifferent front 9. He added a birdie on 18 (which played ridiculously easy on Sunday) to go up by one, a fact that did not go unnoticed by Schaffele, who was playing 17 as this happened. 17 at Carnoustie into the wind is one of the hardest par-4’s in the world, as the Barry Burn traverses the fairway twice and forces players to lay back to a less than comfortable distance. In Xander’s case, he had 254 yards to a tucked right hand flag. The prudent play would have been for him to hit to the center of the green, two putt for par, and take his chances on 18. Shauffelle chose otherwise and pushed his approach well to the right, leaving him with a short sided pitch made even more difficult by the presence of a finicky three year old child trapped with his mother at the spectator rope. To his everlasting credit, Xander saw the humor in the situation and allowed himself a chuckle. Alas, he was unable to get up and down.
Molinari watched all of this from a comfortable waiting area with an air that could be described as calm concern, occasionally flashing a smile that reminds one of a younger version of actor Hank Azari. His victory speech was modest and gracious, if not particularly memorable. And I’m not sure that, given the bombast of Tiger Woods’s performance, many will recall how well he played. So I’m here to remind one and all that for the final 36 holes of the Open Championship on one of the most difficult courses in the world, Francesco Molinari did not make a single bogey.
Hai giocato a golf bellissimo, Franceso.