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Francesco Molinari, the calmest guy in the room, wins The Open

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Francesco Molinari, the calmest guy in the room, wins The Open

Francesco Molinari makes 16 pars and two birdies while paired with Tiger Woods

    Written by Mike McAllister @PGATOUR_MikeMc

    CARNOUSTIE, Scotland – Chaos on the leaderboard. Final group is struggling. Tiger’s in contention. No, wait, Tiger’s leading! No, wait, now he’s not. Then a six-way tie for first … and how the heck did Rory get in the mix? Thought we wrote him off two hours ago.

    Sunday was a delicious mess, a day in which a dozen or so guys seemed to sneak peeks at the Claret Jug. It was fun, entertaining, a roller-coaster ride of epic Open Championship proportions, as the real Carnoustie – the nasty one, thanks to stiffer winds and tougher pin placements -- finally showed up.

    In the end, though, it belonged to the calmest guy in the room.

    En route to becoming the first Italian to win The Open, Francesco Molinari went about his business this weekend like a meticulous craftsman patiently working on a Stradivarius. He put his head down, never drew attention to himself, and never made a mistake. He played beautiful bogey-free golf for 36 holes on a course that, frankly, he’s avoided in recent years. Carnoustie is one of three venues for the European Tour’s Alfred Dunhill Links Championship; Molinari has only played the event once since 2012 and has never finished inside the top 35.

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

    That’s why he didn’t fancy his chances this week, even though the 35-year-old from Turin was on the hottest streak of his career and the hottest golfer on the planet. Two wins on two continents in his last five starts, including the Quicken Loans National earlier this month on the PGA TOUR. He also threw in a couple of runner-up finishes, including a T-2 in his last start at the John Deere Classic.

    So how did we overlook this guy? The big reason on Sunday was obvious – his playing partner.

    Tiger Woods was the host at the Quicken Loans and the one who handed the tournament trophy to Molinari. Now they were in the same twosome battling for golf’s most historic trophy. With Tiger close to turning back the clock – OK, not exactly to year-of-2000 standards, but closer to 2008, the year of his 14th and last major victory when he won on essentially one leg – Molinari was relegated to sideshow status.

    “Clearly in my group, the attention wasn’t really on me, let me put it that way,” Molinari said. “If someone was expecting a charge, probably they weren’t expecting it from me, but it’s been the same the whole of my career.”

    Indeed, Molinari had no problem working in the shadows. He grew up as the younger brother to Edoardo Molinari, who in 2005 became the first continental European to win the U.S. Amateur. Francesco had already turned pro, making his debut on the European Tour with muted performances. Edoardo eventually turned pro himself, and along with Francesco, began making their presence known -- particularly as teammates at the 2009 World Cup and 2010 Ryder Cup.

    Since then, Edoardo’s career has stalled due to two hand surgeries. On Sunday, he texted his brother to wish him good luck. “I would love for him to get back to where he was a few years ago,” Francesco said. “Golf is a tough beast.”

    Now Francesco is the beast. Jordan Spieth has seen it up close.

    “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.”

    Spieth, of course, was hoping for his own payoff Sunday after entering the final round as a co-leader with Kevin Kisner and Xander Schauffele. But the defending champ, who displayed a magic touch down the stretch last year at Royal Birkdale and who on Saturday morning got a haircut at a local shop called Magic Barbers, could conjure up very little on Sunday.

    A bogey-double bogey stretch midway through his front nine gave the opening his chasers needed. Schauffele and Kisner also had struggles, particularly out of Carnoustie’s bunkers; in fact, Schauffele, last season's PGA TOUR Rookie of the Year, was forced to hit three one-legged bunker shots Sunday due to some awkward lies.

    Such contornion-like poses usually aren't required on the PGA TOUR, but Schauffele didn't mind "At times I probably wasn't smiling," he said, "but I was having a lot of fun, to be completely honest."

    Molinari – who started the day three shots off the lead – moved up the leaderboard simply by working his way out of trouble and stringing together par after par after par. Woods had moved ahead of him, and for a 23-minute span, even had the solo lead. Asked if leading a major felt familiar after so many years out of the mix, Tiger simply said, “Oh, yeah.”

    Meanwhile, the cool Molinari just maintained his par train, letting others self-destruct. Woods lost the lead with a double bogey at the 11th, moving Molinari into a share of the lead with Spieth, Kisner and Kevin Chappell. McIlroy soon joined them after a 59-foot eagle putt at the par-5 14th, as did Schauffele with a birdie at the 10th.

    "Every time I looked up at the leaderboard, there's four, five, six guys in the lead," Schauffele said, "and five, six guys one back."

    Finally, Molinari took the lead with his first birdie – or non-par – of the day at the 14th. Schauffele joined him 30 minutes later, and that’s when the crowded leaderboard finally started to thin out. The possibility of a playoff still loomed, but then Molinari delivered the decisive blow – a 60-degree wedge from 112 yards at the 18th hole. The ball finished 5 feet from the pin, just inside Woods’ well-struck approach.

    McIlroy knew then he was out of the mix. It had been a valiant effort but Molinari was too steady. "With how he's played this year," McIlroy said, "there's just maybe a little more belief. ... There's going to be a lot of European guys vying for his partnership in the foursomes at the Ryder Cup, that's for sure."

    Molinari and Woods then walked up the fairway toward the large grandstands and the Carnoustie hotel in the distance. Woods crossed the Barry Burn on the left side, while Molinari crossed it on the right. Woods missed his putt, Molinari made his and was now the leader at 8 under.

    “He chipped it beautifully,” Woods said about his playing partner. “I know he made a couple of putts here and there for par but to get it to where it was basically kick-in from some of the spots he put himself, that was impressive. Great touch.”

    The waiting game then began for Molinari. After signing his card, he retreated to a couch to watch the coverage and see if Schauffele could catch him. It was a helpless feeling, and sitting there only made it worse, even though Schauffele dropped two strokes behind with a bogey at 17. It didn't matter for Molinari. He buried his head, still nervous; for the first time today, he did not appear calm.

    “That’s why I went to the putting green because I probably would’ve felt sick watching on TV,” he said. “Big credit to my wife, who watches me all the time. I don’t know how she does it. I couldn’t do it.”

    Having hit a few putts, he suddenly stopped. Finally, it was official. Schauffele had not holed out at 18. It was 6:52 p.m. local time; more important, it was 7:52 p.m. back in Turin. The chaos at Carnoustie had finally ended. A new chapter has begun in golf. Italy has its first major champion.

    “Look at the names on that Claret Jug,” Molinari said, staring at the shiny object within arm’s length. “What can you say? It’s the best golfers in history, and to be on there, it’s incredible. From someone like me coming from Italy – not really a major golfing country – it’s been an incredible journey.”

    Given his form, don’t expect it to end anytime soon.

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