Carnoustie’s charms can be elusive, but its cruelties are readily apparent. The old links has scant aesthetic appeal, no alluring views or heaving dunes. Like the village from which it draws its name, Carnoustie is simple and functional, and that function is simple: stress test the world’s finest golfers until just one remains unbroken.
Sometimes not even the winner emerges unscathed from a cross-examination at Carnoustie. Paul Lawrie, the 1999 champion, sought therapy after his victory was widely dismissed as a gift from a clownish Frenchman.
There’s a reason why the lingering images from recent championships here have been of the vanquished, not the victors: Jean Van de Velde barefoot in Barry Burn, Sergio Garcia doubled over in anguish after his putt to win lipped out.
At Carnoustie Opens, one man’s ecstasy is invariably built on another’s agony.
Not at the 147th Open, however. It was won by Francesco Molinari, not lost by his challengers.
“I don’t think anyone feels too confident when they stand on that first tee at Carnoustie,” Molinari said. “I’m lost for words really. Incredible to do something like this, and very proud of what I’ve done.”
With good reason.
Over the final two rounds, Molinari didn’t make a single bogey while navigating a layout so famously difficult that its logo ought to be a meat grinder. Compare that to the last two Opens here, when on the final hole alone one leader made a triple bogey to fall into a losing playoff while another made double bogey for a playoff that he won.
The Carnoustie motif is winning – and losing – ugly.
The 35-year-old Molinari lacked the wattage of many on that all-star leaderboard Sunday afternoon, but he indisputably has been the world’s best in a summer that brought wins at Europe’s flagship BMW PGA Championship and the PGA Tour’s Quicken Loans National. As the luminous stars faded, the pugnacious Italian with the sturdy build of a college wrestler kept his cool.
Molinari is what the Brits call a plodder, a man with more substance than style, overcoming obstacles and deficiencies that the greats of the game don’t ever have to think about. He embodies the one trait that is always rewarded at Carnoustie: tenacity. That’s apparent in the winner’s roll here: Harrington, Watson, Player, Hogan. And yes, Lawrie.
Molinari is unquestionably in that mold, even if his resume is not in that league.
To the drive-by sports fan drooling over the final-round leaderboard, a win by any of the ensemble players must seem like yet more evidence of the capriciousness of Carnoustie. It’s an understandable sentiment, given just how tantalizing that leaderboard was midway through the final round.
For years, we’ve heard the young guns on Tour say they’d love to go head-to-head with Tiger Woods down the stretch in a major championship. The comments seemed like mere politeness, of course, a doffing of the cap to a punch-drunk heavyweight they wouldn’t actually ever have to face in the ring.
Yet for a brief, thrilling period Sunday, Woods gave the kids what they wanted, climbing to the top slot like a usurped king reclaiming his long-lost throne. It was illuminating how his heirs apparent reacted.
Playing two groups ahead of Woods, Rory McIlroy drafted on the energy, making a lengthy eagle putt on 14 and a series of clutch par saves on the closing stretch. He too shared the lead but eventually ran out of holes.
“It was great, just to be a part of it and hear the roars. Tiger being back in the mix. You know, everything,” McIlroy said. “For a while, I thought Tiger was going to win. My mindset was go and spoil the party here.”
Playing two groups behind Woods in the final pairing, Jordan Spieth admitted he accidentally glanced at a leaderboard late on the front nine. “I looked up and I saw Tiger at No. 1, and he was leading solo. And I went to Michael (Greller, his caddie), and I was like ‘Dammit, I looked at the board, dude.’ I was, like, frustrated at myself.”
The defending champion had scrapped his way around Carnoustie all week, but this isn’t a course where Band-Aids and string will hold a man together long enough to get his name engraved on the Claret Jug.
Spieth’s putter, once considered his Excalibur, is now more liability than weapon. His swing, which has teetered on the brink of disaster even in his finest hours, seems ever more vulnerable. He entered Sunday tied for the lead, but as the day wore on his scorecard looked like an intensive care monitor slowly ticking down toward the inevitable.
Even par would have won. One-over would have given him a playoff. He didn’t make a single birdie on his way to an ugly 76 and a T-9 finish.
For Woods, this Open announced the next chapter of his comeback, where the story ceases to be one of gratitude and platitude about his health in favor of expectations of his performance. What does he have in the tank? Plenty, it seems.
He wasn’t the Tiger of old. We won’t see him again. Back then his greatest strength was turning what ought to have been a round of 75 into a 72, limiting the damage of a rare off day. The new Tiger has a tendency to turn what should have been a 68 into a 71.
He did that Saturday evening, grabbing a share of the lead but surrendering it with sloppy bogeys on Nos. 16 and 18. We saw a repeat Sunday, an electrifying charge frittered away with a double-bogey at 11 and another lost shot at 12.
“Today I did everything the way I thought I needed to do it to win the championship,” Woods said after his tie for sixth place.
McIlroy was the man who most obviously wanted a piece of Tiger during that final-round shootout, and afterward he politely buried the king with faint praise. He’s not the Tiger that Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els had to handle, McIlroy observed. “It’s a different version. But he’s right there. He’s right there. He’s getting himself in the mix.”
Asked if he appreciated the old king’s return to the top of a leaderboard, he laughed. “No, not at all,” he said.
“Maybe if I was at home with a broken ankle like a few years ago, it might have been cool, but when you’re the one trying to beat him, no, no appreciation there.”
Carnoustie was the first time that the three current kings of the game have drawn swords on Sunday. It was what the sport needed, even in an era when it seems flush with both talent and personality: a Sunday afternoon dogfight in a major that involves the biggest hounds in the pound.
It’s hardly surprising that while the kings circled each other, a talented prince grabbed the throne. For a year, at least.
Winning the game’s oldest major is as much about attitude as execution, a willingness to accept that fine shots can get a lousy result. In Molinari it found a deserving winner, the only man who could tame the meanest links in Scotland.
And that’s always the final accounting in a major championship. McIlroy said as much as the sun set on Carnoustie.
“One guy out of 156 is going to win,” he remarked. “And 155 other guys are going to leave a little disappointed.”
Golfweek, July 22, 2018.