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Francesco Molinari’s British Open win is most notable for the hyper-famous guys who lost

British Open champion Francesco Molinari was paired with a certain Tiger Woods. “Clearly in my group the attention wasn’t really on me, let’s put it that way,” he said.
British Open champion Francesco Molinari was paired with a certain Tiger Woods. “Clearly in my group the attention wasn’t really on me, let’s put it that way,” he said. (Will Oliver/Epa-Efe/Rex/Shutterstock)
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CARNOUSTIE, SCOTLAND — A nerve-menacing British Open on Sunday that taxed the brain and filled the ears and hastened the breathing wound up going to the guy who epitomized stability so much that he began with 13 straight pars. Francesco Molinari became the first Italian man to win a major golf tournament by perfecting a hard, overlooked art of a savage sport: the four-foot par putt that travels with admirable certainty.

He repeatedly made those, arranging them with a short game that impressed playing partner Tiger Woods — “He played really solidly,” Woods said — and he did so on a day that became impossible to follow lucidly, with its five-way tie for the lead at one point and its six-way tie for the lead at another and its six-way tie for second place at another, with all those six frothing beneath — good grief — Woods.

“I’m lost for words,” Molinari, 35, said after his 2-under-par 69 landed him at 8 under for the tournament, two shots ahead of a four-way logjam in second. On a day when Woods rose and then sank, Rory McIlroy sank and then rose, Jordan Spieth led and then sank and Justin Rose sank and then rose, a guy playing his 36th major tournament with three previous top-10 finishes had played the last 37 holes of a snarling course with a maddening Sunday wind with a preposterous number of bogeys: zero.

“To go the weekend bogey-free, it’s unthinkable, to be honest,” he said.

Tiger Woods fades, and Francesco Molinari wins his first major

As he upstaged his own scalding midseason that already included wins on the big tours on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean — including that closing 62 at the Quicken Loans National at TPC Potomac at Avenel Farm earlier this month — he joked that the import of his win for Italian sports “depends. Ferrari won today? If they won, they probably get the headlines.” The moderately famous guy who won figures to have his win notable for the hyper-famous guys who did not.

Woods did not, even though he tantalized the sport and chunks of the world by spending about 25 minutes alone atop the leader board midway through the round, 10 years after his 14th and most recent major win, five years after his most recent win and two-plus hours after starting off four shots behind.

Had that felt familiar? His grin grew gigantic as he said, “Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah.”

His statements included, “Oh, it was a blast,” and, “Next thing, lo and behold, I’m tied for the lead, and then I’m leading it,” and the telltale, “A little ticked off at myself for sure.” That would stem from Nos. 11 and 12, where his double bogey-bogey combination elbowed him aside. No. 11, with its “bad three-iron off the tee,” its second shot that hit a green-side spectator in the cap and its third shot that went up a slope toward the green but couldn’t get there and decided to come back down, could provide particular wincing.

“Serena [Williams] and I are good friends,” he said. “I’m sure she’ll probably call me and talk to me about it because you’ve got to put things in perspective. She just had a baby and lost the Wimbledon finals. ‘Just keep it in perspective,’ and the same thing with me. I know that it’s going to sting a little bit here, but given where I was” — untold injuries, 12 missed majors this decade, back surgery 15 months ago — “to where I’m at now? Blessed.”

McIlroy did not win even though he reappeared shortly after Woods dipped by crashing in a long eagle putt on No. 14, which vaulted him to the 6-under summit at the time. Yet he parred in from there, whereupon the four-time major winner said, “It was great, just to be a part of it and hear the roars. Tiger being back in the mix. . . . It was cool. It was really cool.”

Asked whether Woods’s brief lead gave him any appreciation, McIlroy had all but a wink when he said, “Yeah, maybe if I was at home with a broken ankle like a few years ago, it might have been cool, but when you’re the one trying to beat him, no, no appreciation there.”

Oh, and of Molinari, he said, “He’s always been a great player, I just think with how he’s played this year, there’s just maybe a little more belief.”

Spieth also did not win, but the defending champion and three-time major champion said, “I feel fine. I’ve already gone through the frustration. You put yourself in position enough times, it goes your way some, doesn’t go your way some.” His 76 plunged him from his opening lead shared with impressive 24-year-old Californian Xander Schauffele and Kevin Kisner, and Spieth never made a birdie yet felt encouraged, particularly with his putting.

The name “Woods” atop the board? “Yeah, I saw it on maybe No. 7 or 8 green, and it was an accident,” Spieth said. “And I looked up, and I saw Tiger at number one, and he was leading solo, and I went to Michael [Greller, his caddie], I was like, ‘Dammit, I looked at the board, dude.’ I was, like, frustrated at myself. He’s like, ‘He hasn’t been in this position in 10 years, and you’ve been here how many times the last three years?’ ”

Oh, and of Molinari, he said, “Yeah, just to go today’s round without a bogey is unreal.”

Other deeply impressive players spent moments with the lead and also did not win, from Kisner to Kevin Chappell to Schauffele, who became the last one with a chance to catch Molinari until he bogeyed No. 17. “ ‘Chaotic’ is probably the best way to put it,” Schauffele said. “Jordan and I, we got off to a nice, sort of easygoing start, had a couple of birdie looks. And then whatever happened happened, where we just were in the strangest spots possible on the golf course, you know, where we didn’t think we would be.”

As the two 24-year-olds and all others made their occasional messes, as at No. 6, Molinari made none. He birdied Nos. 14 and 18, the latter after an approach shot worthy of violins. He did all this somehow despite playing amid a Woodsian crowd of which Molinari said, “Clearly in my group the attention wasn’t really on me, let’s put it that way,” and on a course on which he had “got beaten up” previously. He said it had been “everything to make someone nervous” but that he “focused on my process and on hitting good shots and playing smart golf.”

He spoke of watching countryman Costantino Rocca in 1995 at St. Andrews, where the Italian finished second in a playoff to John Daly. He said, “For someone like me coming from Italy, not really a major golfing country, it’s been an incredible journey.” He said that by next year at the 2019 Open in Northern Ireland, this Sunday where he sailed calmly above madness might even have sunk in.