Molinari staves off final runs of Woods, McIlroy and Spieth

Published 3:54 pm Monday, July 23, 2018

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland (AP) — There is nothing flashy about Francesco Molinari except for the players he keeps beating.

He was a forgotten figure when he teed off in the final round of the British Open, mainly because he was playing with Tiger Woods, and because of the star power around him. Jordan Spieth was tied for the lead. Rory McIlroy was one shot behind Molinari.

“If someone was expecting a charge, they probably weren’t expecting it from me,” he said. “But it’s been the same the whole of my career.”

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His name etched into the silver claret jug should help with that.

Now that’s flashy.

And it wasn’t an accident. The 35-year-old Italian was the hottest player in golf in the two months leading up to the British Open with two victories and two runner-up finishes. All he did at the BMW PGA Championship was go head-to-head with McIlroy in the final round and beat him by two. A month later, he shot 62 in the final round to win the Quicken Loans National, with tournament host Woods finishing fourth and presenting Molinari the trophy.

Carnoustie tempered some of that confidence.

Reputed to be the toughest links in golf, especially in the 20 mph gusts that finally arrived Sunday, Molinari stopped playing the Dunhill Links Championship because that one stop on the three-course rotation ate him up.

“I got beaten up around here a few times already in the past,” Molinari said. “I didn’t particularly enjoy that feeling.”

And yet there he was in the final round, with major champions in front of him and behind him and the biggest one of them all — Woods next to him in a final round so wild that seven players had a share of the lead at various times, and six players were tied on the back nine.

McIlroy and former U.S. Open champion Justin Rose made a charge. Woods and Spieth were among five contenders to make double bogeys.

In the midst of such great theater, Molinari made his biggest move by not going anywhere at all. He opened with 13 pars, including the 12th and 13th holes as Woods lost the lead with a double bogey and a bogey.

Molinari took the lead for the first time with a two-putt birdie on the par-5 14th. He made one more birdie on the final hole by hitting driving that narrowly avoided a pot bunker, leaving him a lob wedge to 5 feet for a birdie that secured his place in history as Italy’s first major champion.

“That putt on the last, I’ll never forget,” he said.

Molinari closed with a 69, significant for two reasons. He was the only player from the final two groups to break par, and he didn’t make a bogey over the last 37 holes.

“He’s been playing unbelievable golf. He’s been working his butt off,” Spieth said. “I see him in the gym all the time, going through his routine, grinding on the range, doing his own stuff. It truly is hard work that paid off for Francesco. I’m certainly happy for him. I’ve watched this through the PGA Tour this year day in and day out, seeing him work as hard as anyone else.”

Solid off the tee, suspect at times on the green, Molinari first showed his potential in a World Golf Championship in Shanghai in 2010 when Lee Westwood made his debut at No. 1 in the world. Westwood beat everyone else by nine shots in the HSBC Champions and lost by one to Molinari.

That was the second win of his career for Molinari, and remained his biggest win against a strong field until he arrived at Carnoustie.

Molinari, whose older brother Edoardo won the 2005 U.S. Amateur and played with him in the 2010 Ryder Cup, comes from a country known more for soccer and skiing than golf. They had their chance at glory two decades ago. Molinari was 12 and watching on TV when Costantino Rocca rolled in that putt across the Valley of Sin on the 18th at St. Andrews to force a playoff with John Daly in the 1995 British Open.

Daly wound up winning the four-hole playoff. Rocca was paired in the final round with Woods two years later at the 1997 Masters, but that wasn’t much of a contest.

Now, Italy has the champion golfer of the year.

“The last round already was big news in Italy,” Molinari said. “Obviously, to achieve something like this is on another level. Hopefully, there were a lot of young kids watching on TV today, like I was watching Costantino in ‘95 coming so close. Hopefully, they will get as inspired as I was at the time, watching him vie for the claret jug.”

The victory was the seventh of his career, and it moved him to No. 6 in the world, right in front of McIlroy and Spieth.

He’s in good company.

“He’s always been a great player,” McIlroy said. “With how he’s played this year, there’s just maybe a little more belief. I played with him the final day at Wentworth and he didn’t miss a shot. So there’s going to be a lot of European guys vying for his partnership in foursomes at the Ryder Cup.”