On an afternoon that will long be remembered, it looked at one point as though Tiger Woods, having feared his career could have been over not so long ago due to chronic back trouble, might write one of the greatest sporting tales as he turned for home tied for the lead. His hopes of a 15th major title and first since 2008 were undone, though, as his game became scrappy on the back nine.
With the clubhouse target of five-under having been set by Eddie Pepperell after the Englishman came hurtling through the field on the back of a best-of-the-day 67, Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy then burst into Claret Jug contention after both eagled the par-5 14th. Rose hit the flag with his second and was left with a tap in; McIlroy roared with joy after knocking in a long putt.
For the fourth day in a row – an incredible feat on the toughest finishing hole in golf, even allowing for the fact it wasn’t baring its normal set of teeth due to the fast-running conditions – Rose birdied the last to move ahead of Pepperell. That the Olympic champion got himself in the mix was a remarkable effort bearing in mind his three there on Friday had got him into the weekend by the skin of his teeth.
After closing with four pars, McIlroy, pictured, matched Rose’s total. The 2014 winner was unable to convert a 20-foot birdie effort at the last, missing on the left of the hole. You had a feeling that might be costly in the final reckoning and so it proved. This was Molinari’s day and the 35-year-old from Turin wasn’t going to be denied his finest hour.
Three shots off the overnight lead, held by defending champion Jordan Spieth, as well as two other Americans, Xander Schauffele and Kevin Kisner, Molinari was steady as a rock as he reeled off 13 straight pars. He was on course to “do a Nick Faldo”, the Englisman having made 18 pars in the closing circuit to win at Muirfield in 1987. That would have only got Molinari into a play-off here. He needed birdies over the closing stretch and got them at the 14th and 18th.
By the time he converted a five-footer at the last, Schauffele was the only man who had a chance of catching him. A poor club decision by Spieth at the par-5 sixth – he sent a utility club straight into a bush when he initially pulled out an iron – was the root of a double-bogey 7. After re-grouping, the 24-year-old was still in there with five to play but finished poorly. Kisner, who had earlier dropped three shots in two holes on the front nine, and another American, Kevin Chappell, also still had chances as things got down to the business end but came up short, too.
Schauffele, who was playing in this event for only the second time, was tied with Molinari on seven under as he stood over a birdie putt from around ten feet at the par-3 16th. He couldn’t convert that, though, and then dropped a shot at the next after carving his second shot to gorse bushes.
Molinari was on the practice putting green by then just in case Carnoustie was going to get its fourth play-off in a row in this great championship. There was no shoot-out required on this occasion, though.
Molinari’s success in the Angus sunshine was no surprise. He had come into this event in the form of his life. He had overtaken halfway leader McIlroy then left him trailing in his wake to win the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth in May – his fifth European Tour triumph. He then won the Quicken Loans National on the PGA Tour a few weeks later. Throw in two second-place finishes in the same spell in both the Italian Open and the John Deere Classic, as well as a top-25 finish in the US Open at Shinnecock Hills, and no wonder he proved attractive before the off here at 28-1.
In closing with a 69, he finished with an eight-under-par 276 total, winning by two shots from Rose (69), McIlroy (70), Kisner (74) and Schauffele (74). Woods (71) finished a shot further back alongside Pepperell and Chappell (73), while Spieth (76) had to settle for a share of ninth position with Matt Kuchar (72) and Tony Finau (71).
“To go the weekend bogey-free, it’s unthinkable, to be honest,” said Molinari, whose previous best performance in this major had been joint ninth in similar fast-running conditions at Muirfield in 2010. “So I’m very proud of today and playing with Tiger was another challenge because of the crowds and everything. But I felt really good this morning. When I came here, I felt I was ready for the challenge. I knew I was going to do my best today.
“I knew the front nine would play mostly into the wind, so pars were great. So I was happy with my score. And then, coming back, I knew I would get a couple more chances downwind. So everything went to plan. I liked the way the course was playing, but, again, it’s a beast of a course – I don’t think anyone feels too confident when they stand on that first tee at Carnoustie.”
McIlroy, who played aggressively from the start on Thursday, took positives from his performance. “I don’t really feel like it’s a defeat. I feel like it’s a good week. I played well,” said the 28-year-old. “I think anything under par out there today was a good score. I didn’t get off to a great start, but I hung in there, and I battled back. Just sort of ran out of holes at the end. The only real chance was at the last.
“It was great, just to be a part of it and hear the roars. Tiger being back in the mix. There’s a lot of big names up there. It was nice to be a part of it. For a while, I thought Tiger was going to win. My mindset was go and spoil the party here.
“It was really cool. I have no regrets. I played the way I wanted to play this week. It gives me a lot of encouragement going into the final major of the year [next month’s US PGA Championship at Bellerive in St Louis]. I hung in there. I did what I needed to do. I had some clutch putts coming down the stretch. So I’ll look back at this week and be very encouraged about what I’ve done, and I feel like that will stand me in good stead for what’s coming up.”
Having headed into the weekend nine off the lead, Rose was delighted to come as close as he did. It was his best effort in the event since finishing joint fourth as a 17-year-old amateur at Birkdale in 1999. “It was exciting to be in with even a sniff,” he admitted. “I set myself the lofty goal to shoot five under on the back nine to get to eight-under. I thought that was going to be the number. But this just proves to me that I can play well in this tournament. That I can win the Open. When I’m in the hunt, I enjoy it. I play my best golf. I don’t back away. I really enjoy it.”
On now “owning” the 18th hole, he added: “Today it wasn’t really playing that bear of a hole that it can. Yesterday I hit driver, five-iron, which is more the Carnoustie 18th hole that we know. I feel like I birdied it all ways, which makes it special.”