AUGUSTA, Ga. — As the crowd roared and arguably the greatest golfer of all time celebrated his fifth Masters title, the man who handed it to him considered his own popularity. Francesco Molinari, 36, won the British Open last year, but his opinion of his own potential was such that he booked an easyJet flight for 9 a.m. that Monday. (He missed it.) Molinari is the most decorated Italian golfer ever, but all that earned him on Sunday in Augusta was occasional polite applause as he attempted to hold off Tiger Woods. Only when he struggled did he notice real warmth from the galleries.
“I think I made a few new fans today with those two double bogeys,” said Molinari, chuckling.
He was jovial and gracious in interviews in two languages, as the rain that had upended the schedule mixed with his sweat. He only became frustrated at the suggestion that, standing on No. 18, having already holed out to finish his round at 74, he might have begun to cheer internally for the man who was about to win.
“No,” he said. “Sorry, but no, no.”
Molinari had a grasp of the history at stake: Woods was playing for his 15th major championship overall and his first in 11 years. But Molinari also had a grasp of the lead, and he believed he should have held it.
“One bad swing and one bad decision” separated him from the title, he said afterward. When play began at 7:20 a.m. Sunday in deference to storms forecast for the afternoon, Molinari was in first, and he maintained at least a share of that standing through his first 14 holes on Sunday. He did not bogey between No. 11 on Thursday and No. 7 on Sunday, a stretch of 49 straight holes. (“I was actually hoping to bogey one hole pretty soon,” Molinari said. “It’s going to happen sooner or later, so I was hoping to get it out of the way pretty soon.”) But down the stretch he fell apart on the 12th and 15th holes to seal his fate.
The bad swing came on No. 12, which also dashed the hopes of Brooks Koepka (who tied for second) and Tony Finau (who tied for fifth). All three put their tee shots into Rae’s Creek. All three double bogeyed. All three, in retrospect, probably lost the Masters right there.
Molinari’s first round at Augusta came in 2006, also in the same group as Woods. Woods had shot a 276 to win the tournament the year before. Molinari was a 23-year-old caddying for older brother Edoardo, who had won the U.S. Amateur. Earlier this week, Molinari recalled standing on the 12th tee and hoping to choose the right club.
On Sunday, Molinari insisted that this time he did. He stood there with a two-stroke lead and considered the wind. He and caddie Pello Iguaran were deciding between 8-iron and 9-iron; Molinari conceded that the distance, 155 yards, probably called for the 9, but he worried that gusts would push the ball back into the water. He went with the 8 and tried to pull back slightly.
“He took a little bit too much off,” Iguaran said. “That’s all. It just changed the situation. Tiger was more safe. If you put the ball on the green, Tiger needs to go aggressive, so maybe he goes up, because he wants it. It just opened the door.”
That was the moment, Woods said later.
“The mistake Francesco made there let a lot of guys back into the tournament,” Woods said. “Myself included.”
Strong weather and strong play contributed to a leaderboard that occasionally moved faster than course attendants could update it. Even as the final group played the 15th hole, five men held a share of the lead, at 12–under par.
Molinari was among them, having birdied No. 13 to put himself back in the mix. His drive landed in the right rough. His second shot landed in the left rough. He could have played it safe and gone for the middle of the green, but the par-5 15th is generally a birdie factory, and he could all but feel Woods’s breath on his neck. Molinari made the bad decision: He chose to shoot straight for the pin, which was placed on the front left of the green, just beyond a pond. The ball clipped an overhanging tree branch and dunked into the water. Molinari’s day was truly over. He finished the tournament in a tie for fifth place at 11–under par.
Molinari swept aside concerns that he might have become rattled by Woods’s presence. “Sometimes it is your day, sometimes it isn’t,” he said. “I was calm, collected, never panicked, even after the first double bogey, and I’ll learn a lot, I think, from today.”
Sunday’s collapse notwithstanding, Molinari will be regarded as a favorite going forward. He was surprised to hear after the round that people might see him that way.
“It doesn’t change how I prepare for these tournaments,” he said. “I just keep doing the same [thing] over and over again.”
Well, almost the same. Molinari will play the RBC Heritage next week in Hilton Head, S.C. This time he decided to drive. And before this all began, just in case, he planned to leave well after 9 a.m.