Dave Tindall reflects on a thrilling final day at the Open Championship where Francesco Molinari became Italy's first ever winner of the Claret Jug.
Francesco Molinari had dropped hints galore coming into this Open Championship that it could be his week. So for those of us who didn’t back him, the usual soul-searching is now taking place. The Italian was basically the hottest golfer on the planet over the last few months having won either side of the Atlantic while also adding a pair of second places in his previous six starts. The hindsight kicks in further when considering that he was runner-up in last summer’s PGA Championship and had shown some affinity for the Open with three previous top 15s, including T9 at Muirfield in 2013. For years, the Molinari mantra was “if only he could putt”, as the man from Turin had the long-game to win big and win often. Over the last few months he’s shown us he can wield the flat-stick after working with Peter Kenyon while Molinari himself also took time to thank Performance coach Dave Alred, another key member of the team he’s put together. So many young players come out of college and wow us immediately but this was a tale of a player slowly maturing into a fantastic and deserving champion. Why the heck didn’t I back him?!
Tiger beaten at his own game
It also shouldn’t be lost that Francesco Molinari played the final round in the company of Tiger Woods. For a giddy hour or so on Sunday afternoon, it appeared as if Tiger would produce the fairytale and win his first major for 10 years. When hitting the front on his own at 7-under after 11 holes, Woods shortened to just 11/8. He had that look in his eye. But then the realism kicked in. This was 2018 not the mid 2000s. The old Tiger would no doubt have grinded out the win whilst Molinari wilted. Instead, it was Tiger who buckled while the Italian holed clutch putt after clutch putt to strangle his rivals into submission. Like many, I’d love to see Woods win his 15th major but this week tells us it’s far too simplistic to think it’s a matter of time. Winning majors is hard. Dustin Johnson and Justin Rose – now the World Nos. 1 & 2 and both in their 30s – have managed just one each. There are countless other examples. Tiger is a challenger again but while it feels like we’re getting a second chance to see his greatness following all the injury worries, Tiger MK II is a very different animal.
Links prep stat takes another hit
Franceseco Molinari 2018, Jordan Spieth 2017, Zach Johnson 2015. What do they all have in common? Apart from winning the Claret Jug, none of that trio bothered warming up for the Open by playing in a competitive links tournament. It makes plenty of sense to get some links action in before the big one but it’s far from a pre-requisite for success. If we go down the top 11 finishers this week and log where they made their previous start, we get this: Molinari (John Deere), Rose (Scottish Open), McIlroy (Irish Open), Kisner (Greenbrier), Schauffele (Greenbrier), Pepperell (Scottish Open), Woods (Quicken Loans), Chappell (Scottish Open), Finau (Greenbrier), Kuchar (Scottish Open), Spieth (Travelers). So that’s six who played in America last time out and five who took part in the Scottish or Irish. It also means that two of the last four Open winners (Molinari and Zach Johnson) played the John Deere Classic (a completely different test) the week before. Spieth had the week off before his 2017 victory so three of the last four to lift the Claret Jug didn’t head to Scotland or Ireland. One for the notebook ahead of next year’s Open.
I did some research on 10-year trends in Opens prior to Carnoustie and the numbers threw up Justin Rose as the best statistical fit. That looked way off the mark with 35 holes played but after he birdied 18 to make the cut on Friday afternoon, the Englishman roared through the field to finish T2 and give the trends some credence. So how about Francesco Molinari? Was he a typical Open winner or something of an outlier? My criteria were: had a previous top 6 in an Open (no), was 35 or over (yes), in world’s top 30 (yes), had a top 20 in one of previous two starts (yes), played the week before (yes), had won this season (yes), is a major winner (no). The average age of the last 10 Open winners is 35.3 while the average world ranking of the last six Claret Jug winners is 14.5. Molinari is aged 35 and ranked 15th. Doh! It was obvious really wasn’t it. Molinari met plenty of the favoured stats for an Open winner - which just goes to further annoy me that I didn’t back him!
Off to Ireland
Carnoustie was brilliant (apart from my delayed train journey) and I always love being up in Scotland for an Open. Everyone just seems so into it. Next year though, plane or boat will have to kick in as, for the first time in my lifetime, the Open takes place across the Irish Sea. Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland is the venue and, if you’re as sad as me, you’ll be wanting to know if there’s any form we can look at. Well, Royal Portrush staged the 2012 Irish Open won by Jamie Donaldson. Scrolling down the top 20 that year makes for interesting reading as we see a certain Francesco Molinari in tied 10th alongside Rory McIlroy! Others of note: T2 Rafa Cabrera Bello, T10 Ross Fisher, T18 Thorbjorn Olesen. An early show from Sky Bet shows: 10/1 McIlroy, 25/1 Molinari, 80/1 Cabrera Bello, Olesen, 125/1 Fisher. Tiger? 14/1 co-second favourite alongside Rose and Dustin Johnson.