By DOUG FERGUSON
CARNOUSTIE, Scotland (AP) — Francesco Molinari played a steady hand amid the cheers for Tiger Woods and another crazy ending at Carnoustie to win the British Open and become Italy’s first major champion. Woods brought pandemonium by charging into the lead on Sunday at a major for the first time in nine years, only to lose it with one bad hole. Jordan Spieth cost himself by failing to make a single birdie. Seven players had a share of the lead at some point. Six were still tied on the back nine.
Through all that, Molinari never flinched. He closed with a 2-under 69, playing the final 37 holes on the toughest links in golf without a bogey. The clincher was a bold drive on the 18th hole that flirted with edge of a pot bunker, a wedge to 5 feet and a birdie putt that gave him a lead no one in the last two groups was able to erase. Molinari raised his fist and shook it lightly before slamming it for emphasis. “Just disbelief, to be honest,” the 35-year-old said with the gleaming claret jug in front of him. “To go the weekend bogey-free, it’s unthinkable.
Playing with Tiger was another challenge. But I felt really good this morning. I felt I was ready for the challenge.” He finished at 8-under 276, the lowest score in eight Opens at Carnoustie, the course where Jean Van de Velde threw away the British Open with a triple bogey on the last hole in 1999, where Padraig Harrington twice hit into Barry Burn on the last hole to make double bogey and still won. Earlier in the day, Woods had every reason to believe he would cap a most amazing comeback.
He had a one-shot lead until a double bogey on the 11th hole, a bogey on the next. He and Molinari were together three weeks ago when Woods handed him the trophy at his Quicken Loans National. “Francesco played really solidly today,” Woods said. “He was working the ball around the greens, and that was cool to see.” With the wind gusting to 20 mph, the strongest it had been all week, Molinari was the only player from the last four groups to break par.
Woods closed with a 71 to tie for sixth, three shots behind. It was the first time since 2007 that he trailed going into the final round of a major, had the lead and failed to win.
The victory adds to Molinari’s best stretch of golf. Now at a career-best No. 6 in the world, he has won three times and been runner-up twice in the past two months. No one in the final two groups was able to threaten Molinari. Kevin Chappell (73) missed a 10-foot birdie putt on the 16th that would have tied him for the lead, and then misfired into a gorse bush on the 17th to take double bogey. Xander Schauffele, the last one to keep alive the American streak of five straight majors, was one shot behind until he sent a long iron well to the right of the 17th hole and failed to convert a 15-foot par putt to fall two shots behind.
Schauffele had to hole out a wedge on the final hole to force a playoff, and the ball checked up well short. Molinari was on the putting green, not so much to get ready for a playoff, but he couldn’t bear to watch. “It’s been a tough fight,” Molinari said modestly in congratulating the four guys who finished second. “But there can only be one winner. This time, it’s me.”
Schauffele had to settle for second place with Rory McIlroy (70), Justin Rose (69) and Kevin Kisner (74), all of whom had plenty of reason to hope on a warm, windy afternoon that put plenty of bite back into Carnoustie. All of them made mistakes, big and small.
The biggest blunder belonged to Woods, his red shirt blazing against the yellow grass of dry Scottish summer. The roars for his two birdies could be heard from all corners of Carnoustie. It felt like old times, as everyone Woods was chasing began to collapse. Kisner, in a three-way tie for the lead, took double bogey on No. 2. Spieth hit into a gorse bush and made double bogey on the par-5 sixth. Schauffele made double bogey on the next hole, leaving one in the wispy grass, another over the green. Woods was at 7 under, in control of his game and hitting shots that only he can. From a pot bunker on No. 10, he took a bold and vicious swing to get it over the lip, over the burn and to the front edge of the green.
And then it all went wrong. He pulled his shot from the rough on No. 11 into the gallery, fluffed a wedge short of the green, ran it by 8 feet and missed the putt for double bogey. Another poor swing followed and led to another bogey, and just like that, Woods was two shots behind. “A little ticked off at myself, for sure,” Woods said. “I had a chance starting that back nine to do something, and I didn’t do it.” Molinari saved par with 8-foot putts on the 12th and 13th, and he took the lead for the first time with a short birdie on the par-5 14th. With another tough save from off the green at the 16th, he didn’t miss another shot.
Spieth went from a bogey-free round on Saturday that gave him a share of the lead to a birdie-free round that led to a 76, his highest Sunday score in a major. “When you put yourself in position enough times, it goes your way sometimes, it doesn’t go your way sometimes,” Spieth said, who goes to the PGA Championship in three weeks for a chance at the career Grand Slam. Molinari is the first Italian with his name on the claret jug. He was 12 when he watched Costantino Rocca lose in a playoff to John Daly at the British Open at St. Andrews. “Hopefully, there were a lot of young kids watching on TV today, like I was watching Costantino in ’95 coming so close,” he said. “Hopefully, they will get as inspired as I was at the time.”