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How cool was that? Francesco Molinari’s winning Sunday at Carnoustie was a study in composure

July 23, 2018

CARNOUSTIE, Scotland — The golf course here is on the beach. All British Open courses are. As Peter Alliss used to say, golf’s oldest championship is played each year “in sight and sound of the sea.” Still, some Open courses are more brackish and untamed and wavy than others.

At Carnoustie, you can hear the angry squawk of the gulls from start to finish, and the locals — or at least the lady behind the counter in the pizza shop in town — will tell you that when the evening tide changes, the wind comes up and all bets are off. Low tide here was 5:32 Sunday night. The wind came up. The air started to cool just enough so that some fans put on ski caps. On the other side of the ropes, all hell started to break loose.

At 4:30 Sunday afternoon, Tiger Woods was putting his stamp on this tournament. Yes, you kind of had your eye on his playing partner, Francesco Molinari, already, maybe even reluctantly. He certainly wasn’t showing any signs of fright, playing with Woods. If it wasn’t going to be Woods, there’s no reason it couldn’t be Molinari, if you’re into that sort of double negative.

Which is exactly how this 147th Open Championship ended: Frankie M. by two. A major for Molinari, a major for Italy.

But for a moment the moment was Woods’s. As afternoon became evening, he owned this tournament. He was at seven under par and nobody was lower. We all remember what it was like, Tiger with a lead. You could hardly breathe, thinking about the prospect of him winning his 15th major, and thereby ending his 10-year Grand Slam drought.

He was also trying to win a major in front of his kids for the first time. He was trying to become a four-time winner of the British Open, where he would expand the membership rolls of a most distinctive four-man club. (The Tom Morrises old and young, Walter Hagen, Bobby Locke. The Haig!) Most significantly, Woods was trying to reclaim his former life, starting with the title “champion golfer of the year” but going way beyond it. Epic seems inadequate.

Tiger Woods, 2018 British Open
Tiger Woods came up short in his bid for a 15th major title Sunday at Carnoustie.

But the tide turned and Woods made a mess of the short par-4 11th, a double-bogey on a hole where, standing on the tee, he had not only the lead but an iron in hand. That dropped him to five under and that is where he finished. The pain was all over his face as he came off the 18th green. At 42, chances in majors are nothing you can count on, even if you are Tiger Woods. He has said himself that the Open represents his best chance to win another major, and Carnoustie is one of the Open courses he knows best and plays best.

The win — the legitimate prospect of a win — was there for Woods, and he had his fingers on the swinging rings. He just could not hold on. This one will hurt. A couple pulled irons. A couple blocked putts. A closing even-par 71 which sounds OK but really was not. The misses Woods made are not the kinds of things you can work on at home on the range. They are not about know-how and technical excellence. They are about making your body do what you have trained it to do under the most extreme pressure. How do you practice that?

Woods said Sunday night he was a “little ticked off at myself, for sure. I had a chance starting that back nine to do something, and I didn’t do it. 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.” When he says “for a little bit” he means forever. That’s the way he’s built. When he says “blessed,” and if you’ve been watching him this year closely you know this, he means that word in all its otherworldly power.

Anyway, Woods almost certainly played his way on to Jim Furyk’s Ryder Cup team, as a player, in addition to the job he has already signed on for, as assistant captain. More European fun before this golfing year concludes.

And then there was Jordan Spieth, who will be an American headliner come September. The defending champion of this greatest of golf’s greatest events. The leader, or one of them, through 54 holes. Woods is a fascination, but Spieth is golf’s most engaging and likable figure. He started the day at nine under, along with two other Americans, Xander Schauffele and Kevin Kisner. He was in the day’s last twosome. It was a year ago, in the middle of Open Sunday in which he was frittering away the lead, that Spieth turned to his caddie, Michael Greller, and asked, “Are we choking?” But he turned things around, most memorably, and won.

Jordan Spieth British Open 2018
Spieth stumbled with a Sunday 76.

This year he started Sunday at nine under, made the turn at six under, finished at four under. A 76 on a day 71 would have been enough. Out with the tide.

Spieth is not a technocrat. His golf is loaded with flair, in good times and in bad. This hurt, unlike Woods’s, will not endure forever. Sunday night, shortly after completing play, Spieth said, “I’ve already gone through the frustration — I’m on acceptance now.”

He spoke of the “disappointment of not getting the job done, but I’m not going to win every single time.” That last part is something Woods, in his life, has never said, even though it is of course true. Spieth has now played in 23 majors. He has nine top-10s, including his three wins. He’s 24. It’s all good. Woods has played in 79 majors, has 39 top-10s and 14 wins. That’s golf from another planet.

Which leads us to Tiger’s playing partner, Francesco Molinari, who looks like an Italian detective, with his implacable, world-weary demeanor and just-the-facts-ma’am exchanges with his caddie, with reporters, with officialdom. He’s 35, but you would guess older. He’s remarkable, just the kind of guy Woods tends to admire: Without signs of otherworldly gifts, he has made himself one of the best players in the world.

Francesco Molinari, British Open 2018
Francesco Molinari fired a two-under 69 in the final round at Carnoustie to win his first major.

If there was one player who was not going to be intimidated by playing with Woods on the day that he, at least in theory, was supposed to own, it was Molinari. When the Italian won Tiger’s event in Washington on July 1, Woods, who finished 10 shots behind him, said, “The course was a challenge for everyone in the field — except for Francesco here.”

When Molinari won on Sunday, Woods said, “Francesco played really solidly today. He chipped it beautifully. You could see him actually try and hit a couple with cut spin, a couple of draw spin. You know, he was working the ball around the greens, and that was cool to see.” In those sentences is Woods’s highest praise, and he gave it to himself after his Saturday 66: He saw in Molinari a golfer who was in complete control of his game.

His spectacular Sunday round only sounds boring: 13 straight pars to start. His tidal-change moment came on the par-5 14th, where he made a two-putt birdie. That got him to seven under. His round brought to mind the closing round Nick Faldo had when he won the 1987 Open with 18 straight pars. It brought to mind the exhibition David Graham put on in shooting a final-round 67 at the 1981 U.S. at Merion. Molinari’s birdie on 18 — driver in play, stiffed iron, holed putt — was a for-the-ages exclamation mark. When the first player to shake your hand is Tiger Woods, it’s even better.

They were on the 18th green at TPC Potomac earlier this month, but that was an awards ceremony. They were on the 18th green at Medinah at the 2012 Ryder Cup, but that was at the end of a bizarre Sunday collapse by the Americans that lead to a European win. The Ryder Cup is about team. The Open is about golf. Molinari’s was spectacular.

He’s a modest, endearing man whose older brother, Edoardo, plays the European tour and won the 2005 U.S. Amateur, also at Merion. He was the first Italian winner of that event. Francesco is the first Italian victor of the British Open. His wife, Valentina, has worked as a professional photographer. Edoardo is a university engineering degree. Francesco is the champion golfer of the year.

His English is perfect. The accent is perfection. If he were investigating you, you’d tell him anything. On Sunday night, he told us, “Golf is a tough beast.” Next week he and his family “are on holiday.” The continental winner of golf’s oldest championship.

It’s easy to imagine the golfer and his wife on a Mediterranean island, flat beach, gentle waves, their children playing in little tidal pools, the parents drinking red wine out of a silver jug.

Michael Bamberger may be reached at mbamberger0224@aol.com.