Francesco Molinari was “the other guy,” a check-your-program placeholder, somebody to watch Sunday when the wall-to-wall spectators blocked a clear vantage of the superstar in his pairing, Tiger Woods.
Not many people imagined it would be the unassuming Molinari who would quietly assemble another brilliant round — no bogeys all weekend — to claim the British Open for his own.
Molinari shot a two-under-par 69 to finish at eight under for the tournament, becoming the first Italian to win a major championship. Woods briefly held the lead Sunday before dropping back with a double bogey then a bogey, shooting an even-par 71 — his third such round of the championship — and finishing tied for sixth at five under.
The sun was shining all day, but Molinari unquestionably was playing in a long shadow cast by a 14-time major winner making an unlikely return to relevance. The fans were so fixated on Woods that they shouted his name even when Molinari was standing over his ball, ready to make a swing.
“Clearly, in my group, the attention wasn’t really on me, let’s put it that way,” said Molinari, 35, sitting in the media interview room with the glistening Claret Jug at his side. “If someone was expecting a charge, probably they weren’t expecting it from me.”
In the end, the most compelling drama came not from the leading men, but the co-stars. It came down to Molinari and San Diego’s Xander Schauffele, playing two groups behind him with defending champion Jordan Spieth.
Heading into the final hole, Molinari was two strokes ahead of Woods at seven under, and tied for the lead with Schauffele, who was about to tee off at No. 17. It was shaping up as a possible playoff between two lesser-known players.
But Molinari birdied No. 18 and Schauffele bogeyed No. 17, creating the final margin of victory.
You could hear reality sinking in that Molinari actually could win. Late in the round, those rapid-fire camera clicks from photographers inside the ropes weren’t focused entirely on Woods. They were split, with a flurry of click-click-clicks on both players.
Immediately after his round, with TV cameras trained on him, Molinari sat in a room below the grandstands at No. 18 and buried his face in his hands, trying not to look at the remaining action unfolding before him on the monitors.
“I couldn't watch Xander play the last two holes, to be honest,” he said. “That's why I went to the putting green because I probably would have felt sick watching on TV. So big credit to my wife that watches me all the time. I don't know how she does it. I couldn't do it.”
Schauffele, 24 and in his second year on the PGA Tour, wound up in a tie for second with Justin Rose, Rory McIlroy and Kevin Kisner.
Molinari played his final 37 holes without a bogey or worse. According to ESPN Stats & Info, he’s the first major champion since Steve Elkington at the 1995 PGA Championship to play the final two rounds without a hole over par.
“He chipped it beautifully,” Woods said of Molinari. “I know he made a couple of putts here and there for par, but to get it to where it was basically a kick-in from some of the spots he put himself in, that was impressive.”
No extrication was more impressive than that of Woods, whose life had fallen apart on and off the course. Until this tournament, he hadn’t played four rounds of a major in par or better since the 2010 Masters.
Although he said he was “a little ticked off” at himself for missed opportunities Sunday, he loved being back in the mix when it counted.
“Oh, it was a blast,” he said. “I was saying earlier that I need to try to keep it in perspective because [at] the beginning of the year, if they’d have said, ‘You’re playing the Open championship,’ I would have said I’d be very lucky to do that.”
Woods was in attendance at Wimbledon to watch his friend, Serena Williams, compete in the women’s singles final 10 months after giving birth to her first child and enduring a difficult recovery. Williams lost in straight sets.
“I’m sure she’ll probably call me and talk to me about it, because you’ve got to put things in perspective,” said Woods. “She just had a baby and lost in the Wimbledon finals. Just keep it in perspective, and the same thing with me. I know that it’s going to sting a little bit here. But given where I was to where I am now? Blessed.”
The perspective of golf’s other top competitors has changed as well now that Woods is back in the picture.