When it was all said and done, on a gripping final day that flitted on the Carnoustie wind, Francesco Molinari was left holding the Claret Jug.
Jordan Spieth, the defending champion and three-time major winner by age 24, began Sunday with a share of the British Open lead, pinned together with Kevin Kisner and Xander Schauffele, two ahead of the next-closest challengers.
Tiger Woods, 10 years on from his 14th and most recent major success and little more than a year from his fourth back surgery, topped the leaderboard not long into his back nine.
Rory McIlroy and Justin Rose, with five majors and an Olympic gold between them, both eagled the 14th to eventually post the clubhouse lead. At one point, there was a six-way tie at the top.
Yet amid the drama and the din, Molinari held his nerve to win by two. He parred his first 13 holes, then leapt out in front with a birdie on the par-5 14th. He moved to 7-under par and then jumped up another at the last. On a day when Carnoustie claimed many a major scalp, Molinari was a picture of calm. His last bogey fell on the 17th. On Friday. He did not drop a solitary shot in 37 holes.
Sat alongside Schauffele at the summit as he approached the 18th – the American was two holes back – Molinari’s approach to the green pitched short, bounced and rolled to within four feet. A second birdie of the day sealed a first major title. A first for Italy, too.
So Molinari shot a flawless, against-the-odds 69 to finish on 8-under and leave Schauffele and Spieth and whoever else trailed behind a number to shoot at. They couldn’t match it.
The Claret Jug was Molinari’s, to go together with recent victories at the Quicken Loans National and the BMW PGA Championship. He has two seconds during that time. But, at age 35, this was undoubtedly his biggest prize snared to date.
That he did it paired with Woods only accentuated the achievement. The American began four shots off the lead, but went out in 34 to claw his way to the top. As Woods clambered forward, the overnight leaders caved. Spieth played the front nine in 3-over 39; Kisner and Schauffele were one worse.
However, just as Woods threatened to grab the headlines, he double-bogeyed 11 and dropped another at the next. Suddenly, he was playing catch-up.
McIlroy caught up on 14, draining a 35-footer to gatecrash the 5-way tie for top spot. He finished with a 70, two back, in a tie for second. Woods was one behind, both in Sunday’s scorecard and the championship, there in tied-sixth, although in an instant everything felt possible.
Spieth spiralled to a five-over 76, and into a share of ninth. Schauffele’s hopes vanished with a bogey on the penultimate hole, meaning an eagle was required on 18 to force a play-off. He couldn’t muster it, though, slipping to a 74 and that four-man band in second.
America’s major stranglehold, stretching back five majors, was broken. Sat in the clubhouse but perched at the peak, Molinari was crowned Champion Golfer of the Year.
British Open winners in recent times
2018: Francesco Molinari (ITA) at Carnoustie
2017: Jordan Spieth (USA) at Royal Birkdale
2016: Henrik Stenson (SWE) at Royal Troon
2015: Zach Johnson (USA) at St Andrews
2014: Rory McIlroy (NIR) at Hoylake
2013: Phil Mickelson (USA) at Muirfield
2012: Ernie Els (RSA) at Royal Lytham
2011: Darren Clarke (NIR) at Royal St George’s
2010: Louis Oosthuizen (RSA) at St Andrews
2009: Stewart Cink (USA) at Turnberry
2008: Padraig Harrington (IRL) at Royal Birkdale
2007: Padraig Harrington (IRL) at Carnoustie
2006: Tiger Woods (USA) at Hoylake
2005: Tiger Woods (USA) at St Andrews
2004: Todd Hamilton (USA) at Royal Troon
2003: Ben Curtis (USA) at Royal St George’s
2002: Ernie Els (RSA) at Muirfield
2001: David Duval (USA) at Royal Lytham
2000: Tiger Woods (USA) at St Andrews
1999: Paul Lawrie (SCO) at Carnoustie