This story appears in the July 16, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine — and get up to 94 percent off the cover price. Click here for more.
The crowd along the 14th hole at Carnoustie Golf Links on Sunday was still moving when the British Open co-leader swung his club. Francesco Molinari was not surprised: "Clearly in my group the attention wasn't really on me. Let's put it that way." Helpfully Molinari had major championship experience alongside Tiger Woods. They were in the same group at the 2006 Masters. Woods was a four-time green jacket winner; Molinari was a caddie.
Edoardo Molinari had qualified for Augusta that year as the 2005 U.S. Amateur champion, and Francesco was on his older brother's bag as he shot 80-77 to miss the cut. In the ensuing decade, Francesco slowly did what most Italians did not think—or probably care—was possible: He became one of the best players in the world. Great Italian golfers are not quite as rare as champion Iowan surfers, but there have been times when you could fit them all in a Prius and still have room for luggage. Italian golf history is so spotty that Molinari was inspired as a child by watching a countryman lose a major: the British in 1995, when Costantino Rocca fell to John Daly in a playoff. When Francesco won the Italian Open, in '06, he was the first native titlist in 26 years.
Edoardo has won three times on the European tour and is ranked 397th in the world. But Francesco, 35, became the best golfer in the family, and in his country's history. In his two PGA Tour starts before arriving in Scotland he had finished first (by eight strokes, at the Quicken Loans) and second, lifting his world ranking to 15. Most amazing of all, though: Entering Carnoustie's harrowing final four holes on Sunday, Molinari became more likely to win a major than Tiger Woods.
Woods's last decade has been thoroughly documented: injuries, infidelities, public embarrassment, more injuries, a stint in rehab for painkillers, more injuries. He went essentially two years without competing in a tournament. In April 2017 he underwent spinal-fusion surgery.
Yet there they were at Carnoustie, both decked out in Nike, only one of them instantly recognizable. Maybe your money was on Molinari. His wasn't. Molinari was so tired of handing Carnoustie his flesh by the pound that he stopped playing the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship there years ago. But nobody skips the Open.
Spectators wanted to see history. And they did, though perhaps not the kind they wanted. Woods did not win his 15th major, Rory McIlroy did not win his fifth and Jordan Spieth did not win his fourth. But Francesco Molinari became the first Italian to claim one.
Molinari was not the only golfer to go unnoticed last week. It even happened to the 24-year-old Spieth. On Saturday morning he left the two-house compound that he shared with six other elite golfers, three of their significant others, a physical therapist and a chef, and walked down High Street to get his hair cut. The barber at Magic Barbers 2 apparently did not recognize him; by the time he walked out with a "high and tight" cut that had everybody talking, Spieth barely recognized himself. Not that he seemed to care. He may have picked the wrong barber, but on the course, he was finally looking sharp.
Spieth had not won a tournament since last year's British Open. His putter, usually the most precise weapon in the sport, had been shaky. "I've had different periods where every single part of my game [was] at a low point in my career," he said on Sunday. But he felt so good as the week progressed that as he walked to the 1st tee last Saturday he told swing coach, Cameron McCormick, that he might try to drive the green. He did, made the eagle putt, and shot 65 to tie for the lead at nine under par.
Spieth is locked in a friendly and mostly unspoken duel with McIlroy, 29, for golf's Best Player Since Tiger. Saturday gave a hint that we may have a surprise entrant in the derby: Tiger himself. Just 16 months after his fourth back surgery, Woods played his best golf in at least five years, a laser-filled 66 to finish at five under. There have been many days in recent years when Woods seemed to be out of time. Now he suddenly seemed to have a ton of it. He turns 43 in December. Nicklaus won the Masters at 46. Tom Watson had 59 birthdays and a hip replacement before nearly winning the British in 2009.
"Given what happened the last few years, I didn't know if that would ever happen again," Woods said on Saturday, but as his game returned, so did a feeling. Other than that mallet putter, Woods looked a lot like the guy who once dominated golf. At the range on Sunday, he was checking everything but his swing. He seemed to hit each shot flush: drives and driving irons, draws and fades, half-wedges and bombs, and never once had that why-did-that-just-happen? look on his face. He was, once again, a genius lost in his craft.
Spieth had sworn he wouldn't look at the leaderboard on Sunday. Funny, because everybody else was mesmerized by it. At various times Spieth, McIlroy and Woods each held at least a share of the lead. They are, with Phil Mickelson, the biggest names in golf. Yet each was trying to finish a comeback: Woods from injury, McIlroy from recent majors disappointments and Spieth from the worst year of his career.
On the front nine, Spieth made a bogey and a double and split his right thumbnail on a gorse bush; things were looking down, and worse, he was looking up. When he did, he saw what many golf fans thought they'd never see again: 1. WOODS --7
Spieth turned to his caddie, Michael Greller, and said, "Dammit. I looked at the board." Greller knows all about the Tiger effect; for years, just seeing Woods's name on top made the rest of the field form a line at the port-a-john.
Greller started to give Spieth a pep talk: Tiger hasn't been in this position in forever; you've been here a bunch. Stop talking, Spieth said: "I was like, 'I feel fine. This is what you dream about anyway.'" McIlroy had the same attitude: "It looked for a while like Tiger was going to win. My mind-set was, 'I'm going to spoil the party here.'"
And then there was Molinari. He had no interest in being an eyewitness. In the years since he put on those white coveralls at Augusta and watched his brother play with Woods, he had progressed to the point where he knew he could beat the best. In 2010, Molinari lost a Ryder Cup singles match to Woods, 4 and 3. Two years later he and Woods halved the match that would give Europe the Cup. In May, Molinari was tied for the lead and paired with McIlroy in the final round of the European Tour's BMW PGA Championship; he shot 68 to win by two strokes. "He didn't miss a shot," McIlroy said.
The weekend was so overloaded with great golf that Molinari's performance stayed hidden until the final holes. When Spieth was on the 16th tee on Sunday, he turned to Greller again: "Mikey, what's going on now?" Spieth was at five under. McIlroy and Justin Rose were in the clubhouse at --6. Spieth's playing partner, Xander Schauffele, was seven under, but a difficult closing stretch awaited. Greller figured Spieth just needed to get to six: "Xander's the guy. I think you just need to make one [birdie] on the last three."
Xander was not the guy. Molinari, two groups ahead, was seven-under through 16. Woods's chance at victory appeared to disappear when he left his approach short of the 17th green, but that was when he provided one last reminder that he is still Tiger Woods. He knew he needed to hole out for birdie, and he came within an inch or two of doing so. But by that time, the masses cheering the most famous nickname in sports—"Tigah!"—were joined by Italian fans calling out a rarely heard one: "Kiko!"
As Francesco (Kiko) Molinari walked to the 18th tee, his main competition was not Woods, Spieth, McIlroy or Schauffele. It was the ghost of Jean Van de Velde, who famously needed a double-bogey to win the 1999 British at Carnoustie and brain-farted his way to a triple-bogey, a playoff and a loss to Paul Lawrie. When the wind blows over Barry Burn, you can hear Van de Velde weeping.
If Molinari had any thoughts of failure, they did not reach his driver. He put his tee shot in the fairway and his lob wedge from 112 yards to within five feet. "At that point," Spieth said later, "my day was done." So was Tiger's. Heck, so was almost everybody's. Molinari made the birdie putt to move to eight under. Then he promptly went to the practice green. He couldn't bear to watch Schauffele finish his round. Bogeying 17 to fall two strokes behind, Schauffele needed to hole out for eagle on the 18th just to force a playoff. Only when that miracle failed to occur did Molinari put down his putter.
Molinari will return to his home in London with the Claret Jug and the hope that "there were a lot of young kids watching on TV today, like I was watching in 1995." He was aware of the magnitude of what he had accomplished, and how he accomplished it: "Playing in the last round of a major, close to the lead, playing with Tiger ... there was everything to make someone nervous." He did not show nerves. He had followed up a bogey-free 65 Saturday with a bogey-free 69 Sunday on the toughest course in the British rota. "Unthinkable," he said.
Woods would say he had "a blast." McIlroy would say, "I don't really feel like it's a defeat. I feel like it was a good week." And Spieth would say, "My [putting] stroke is there. It's back. Which feels awesome." But ultimately, the biggest names in golf were all doing the same thing: testifying on behalf of Francesco Molinari.
Spieth called Molinari's final round "pretty ridiculous." McIlroy said, "There's going to be a lot of European guys vying for his partnership at the Ryder Cup, that's for sure." And Woods: "He chipped it beautifully. To get it to where it's basically kick-in from some of the spots where he put himself, that was impressive." Then they headed for their private planes, and Molinari wondered how he would get home. He had a ticket to fly on easyJet that night, and now he would miss his flight. If ever a change fee was worth paying, this was the time. In a week when Tiger Woods played as if he had never left, Francesco Molinari had arrived.