In his last five starts, Francesco Molinari has three wins – two of these on the PGA Tour within this month. He’s not only the form player on the tour right now, on Sunday he became the first ever major winner from his country. But the Italian was not winning the British Open away from having his thunder stolen by the most illustrious player on the tour.
14-time major winner Tiger Woods hasn’t competed in the practical sense of the word for two years, and this summer completed a decade since he last won a major – a decade marred by troubles both on and off the golf course. But there he was announcing a resounding comeback by making a run for the British Open till the very tail end. Woods eventually finished T6, -5, three behind the eventual champion.
Woods wasn’t the only multiple-major winner in the thick of things on Sunday. Rory McIlroy was looking for his fifth major – the first in four years – and Jordan Spieth, the most successful player in the past four years, looking for his fourth. Spieth finished T9, -4, while McIlroy was T2, -6.
But the spotlight was truly on Woods, who was playing his best golf in at least half a decade, and looking to rekindle his quest to overtake Jack Nicklaus’ 18 major titles, which a decade ago had looked all but a formality.
With Spieth and McIlroy vying to take up the mantle as the best golfer since Tiger – to varying successes – it is Woods now well in his 40s who looks to have announced his comeback, even if briefly. The PGA championship in the couple of weeks’ time might address that particular question.
But more significant than Woods’ potential resurgence or the rivalry between Spieth and McIlroy – which hasn’t quite taken off – the present is all about Molinari and how significant his win could be for himself, his country, and indeed all of Europe.
Molinari’s juxtaposition with Woods was also intriguing considering the contrasting situations in which the two have squared off at the biggest stages. They were first in the same group at a major at the 2006 Masters, when Woods was the indubitable best player in the world while Franceso was the caddie for his older brother Edoardo Molinari.
At the 2010 Ryder Cup, Francesco Molinari lost his singles match – 4 and 3 – to Woods. Two years later, the two squared off in a singles match again, with the Italian pulling off a shock as he halved the match to give Europe the title. Molinari will now be an integral part of Europe’s Ryder Cup team in Paris this September, providing a new dimension to challenge the American dominance.
Molinari’s swing – and how straight he hits the ball – is his strength, but he has worked on his short game in recent times as well, which has seen him propel up the rankings. There was not a single bogey for the Italian over the weekend, and numerous 12 footer putts for par, underscoring the consistency that he displayed at the British Open.
Thirteen straight pars to start his spectacular Sunday epitomised this consistency. The two-putt birdie on the 14th brought him closer to his maiden major triumph, as he stood at seven under. Having gone virtually unnoticed all day, Molinari sprung into the spotlight in the final few holes, with more illustrious names surrounding him while the Italian carved out history.
Molinari displayed his all-round ability on Sunday, whether it was his chipping or hitting the ball with both cut and draw spins. He was calm and collected while trying to manoeuvre the ball around the greens. And he did all of this under severe pressure – with Tiger hunting him, a prospect that has made scores of potential champions crumble over the past two decades.
But Molinari demonstrated that he can play his best when he needs it the most. His ability to stand tall under pressure is what defines major champions.
It was on the 18th tee, when none of Woods, Spieth or McIlroy were imminent challengers, and the Italian was facing off against himself and the burden of history that was on him, that he landed his tee shot in the fairway, which was followed by a lob wedge to within five feet from 112 yards out. Molinari duly slotted home the birdie putt to move to -8 with one hand on Claret Jug, as Xander Schauffele crumbled on the final two holes.
The Italian has showcased that at 35 he mightn’t be the youngest golfer on the tour, but the British Open win could be the start of a successful run for the Italian over the next few years.