For fans of golf, there is nothing quite like The Open. Of the four major championships, none seems to be filled with more surprises and drama than 72 holes of the British tournament. This year’s event was no exception.
The last round of play began on Sunday with Jordan Spieth, Kevin Kisner and Xander Schauffele tied for the lead at nine under par at Carnoustie Golf Links in Angus, Scotland. There were also nine rivals within four strokes and 16 within five strokes (six of whom were major champions). When the final round began, there was no telling who the eventual winner would be. Seven players had a share of the lead at some point. Six were still tied on the back nine. Through all of it, Francesco Molinari never wavered.
He closed his round with a 2-under par 69 and amazingly, played the final 37 holes on arguably the toughest links in golf without a bogey. His confidence was as undeniable as his will to win. Even on the final hole, his drive was bold enough skirt the edge of a bunker, followed by a beautiful wedge to within five feet of the cup and then a birdie putt that gave him a lead that deflated the last two groups on the course. Molinari raised his fist and shook it lightly before slamming it for emphasis. He won by two strokes, becoming the first Italian pro golfer to win a major for Italy. “Just disbelief, to be honest,” the 35-year-old said, with the claret jug in front of him.
Those who follow the game know that Francesco has been in pressure spots before, whether in tournament play, the Ryder Cup or just playing a round with his older brother Edoardo, also a pro golfer.
Born in Turin, Italy, as an amateur, Francesco won the Italian Amateur Stroke Play Championship twice and the Italian Match Play Championship in 2004. He turned professional later that year. In May 2006, he claimed his first European Tour victory, becoming the first Italian since Massimo Mannelli in 1980 to win the Telecom Italia Open. Molinari didn’t win on Tour between 2007 and 2009, but during that time he recorded twenty top-10 finishes, including three runner-up finishes. In October 2009, Molinari reached the top 50 of the Official World Golf Ranking for the first time and the following month Francesco and brother Edoardo led Italy to their first World Cup victory at the Omega Mission Hills World Cup in China.
Previously, 2010 had been Molinari’s best year on tour to date. In November of that year, he won the WGC-HSBC Champions in Shanghai, China, defeating Lee Westwood by one stroke. The win moved him into 14th in the Official World Golf Ranking. He also recorded eleven top-10 finishes, including two in the runner-up position. That year, he was also a member of the European Ryder Cup Team that defeated the United States 14½–13½.
Molinari had a steady year in 2011 without any further victories, but he did record seven top-10 finishes, including a third place at the WGC-Cadillac Championship. He finished the year ranked 21st.
He picked up his third win on the European Tour in May 2012 at the Reale Seguros Open de España. He was four strokes out of the lead going into the final round, but fired a seven under par 65, the best round of the tournament, to win by three strokes.
Molinari gained an automatic selection for the 2012 Ryder Cup. It was to be one of the most dramatic comebacks in Ryder Cup history. At the start of the final day’s play, the U.S. led 10 – 6 and required 4½ points to win. Europe required 8 points to retain the cup and 8½ to win it outright. That day, playing in the last singles match against Tiger Woods, he earned a half point for Europe, capping the comeback that saw his team win by a score of 14½ points to 13½.
During the 2013 and 2014 seasons, Molinari didn’t register any wins, but his steady position in the top fifty allowed him to play several PGA Tour events as a non-member, where he reached three top ten finishes, the most prestigious of which was the 6th place at the 2014 Players Championship. These results allowed him to earn a full PGA Tour card for the 2014–15 season.
In 2015 and 2016 Molinari shared his time between the European Tour and PGA Tour. In September 2016 he became the first Italian to win his national open twice with a one shot victory over Danny Willett at the 2016 Italian Open. Other notable results in Europe were the 2nd places collected at the 2015 Open de España and 2016 Open de France. In the U.S., he collected a 3rd place at the 2015 Memorial Tournament. In that same year he also recorded a hole in one in the iconic 16th hole of the Waste Management Phoenix Open.
Molinari recorded his fifth European Tour win and first Rolex Series title two months ago, with victory in the European Tour’s flagship event, the BMW PGA Championship. He produced a flawless final round to beat Rory McIlroy by two strokes. The win took him level with Costantino Rocca for most European Tour wins by an Italian. At the beginning of this month, he dominated the Quicken Loans National by shooting a 62 on Sunday to win by eight strokes. This became the first PGA Tour win for an Italian since 1947. His game had come alive like never before. His confidence to make shots, his steady play and his composure certainly should have made him one of the favorites in The Open, but how would his game fare against the world’s best over 72 grueling, punishing and unforgiving holes? The answer- like the champion that he is. It was a nice payday for Francesco – with over $2.1 million.
When Francesco was 12, 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.”
There is no doubt that many were inspired by his performance and many more that are justifiably proud of his win.