Francesco Molinari: How I won the Open Championship
Professional golf is so competitive that you never fully expect to win a tournament, but it was not a shock to me that I played well at Carnoustie. Heading into the week, I was in great form. Two months earlier, I’d won in Europe at the BMW PGA Championship, and I followed that with a win at the Quicken Loans National. A week before the Open, I finished second at the John Deere Classic. So I was playing some of the best golf of my career when I traveled over to Scotland.
I can’t really say there was a specific sign that this was going to be the week for me. I was a bit jet-lagged the first few days there, and even though I was riding a confidence high, I didn’t have a great record at Carnoustie and really didn’t love the course, so my expectations were pretty low.
A slow start
I played a couple of uneventful rounds of golf on Thursday and Friday, posting 70 and 72. Steady but certainly not spectacular. I hit the ball well and felt like my game was on the up. Sometimes your score doesn’t match how you feel you’ve played.
With 36 holes remaining, there’s still a lot of golf to be played, especially in a major. I was six strokes back of Zach Johnson and Kevin Kisner, who held the lead, and I knew I’d need to have a great day on Saturday to give myself a chance. To do that, I was going to have to be more aggressive, especially off the tee, by hitting more drivers and taking on a few more bunkers. But overall, I was feeling confident about my chances heading into the weekend.
Saturday was much less windy than the previous two days, which gave me the opportunity, as I had hoped, to be more aggressive off the tee. I was able to pull off a few shots early, which boosted my confidence and gave me some momentum. When you’re riding momentum, you have to keep pushing. The fact that I was six or seven shots back made it easy to stay loose as I worked to make up some ground. If you want to go low at Carnoustie, the first seven or eight holes are extremely important. On the seventh, I hit a really good drive past the bunkers, then wedged it to about four feet. That set up my second straight birdie and got me to 3 under for the round. I took that momentum into the back nine, where I was able to birdie 10, 14 and 16 and shoot 65 for the day. That left me three strokes off the lead, behind Kisner, Jordan Spieth and Xander Schauffele.
After the third round, I went back to the house I was renting and had dinner with my wife, my coaches and the rest of my team. With a lot of other players still on the course, I sat back and watched the end of the day’s golf. When it was done, we realized I’d be paired with Tiger Woods on Sunday. That was a very important moment for me.
I first met Tiger in 2006. My brother Edoardo had won the 2005 U.S. Amateur and had thus qualified for the following year’s Masters. I caddied for him that week at Augusta, and we were paired with Tiger. Honestly, I don’t think I made a great first impression. I was super nervous. I just shook his hand and said, “Nice to meet you, I’m Francesco.” He said, “Yeah, nice to meet you. I’m Tiger.” And I felt like saying, “Yeah, well, I know who you are.” After watching him on TV for so long, he was bigger and a lot stronger in person than I imagined he’d be. Since then, and before Carnoustie, we have met and played together a few times. But this was going to be different, playing together on Sunday at the Open Championship. In a way, you wish you were playing with someone else, because of all the attention that comes with playing with Tiger on a Sunday. You know there’s going to be a lot going on—a lot of people watching and a lot of people moving after he finishes a hole, even though you still have to putt out. It’s certainly not the ideal conditions you want for the last round of a major championship. But I was quickly able to switch my mindset and say, “Okay, it doesn’t matter. I need to do my own thing and not worry about what’s going on around me.” That was key for me. I’m lucky in that I usually sleep well before big days. Saturday night, I slept very well because of my outlook on playing the final round of a major with Tiger.
I woke up that morning surprisingly calm. I expected to be a little bit nervous, but when I got to the course I had this sense of readiness to compete and do my thing. The wind had shifted almost 180 degrees from Saturday, so we were playing a completely different golf course from the day before. This meant that my game plan had to be different. The wind was blowing hard, and I knew the first seven holes would be playing directly into it. The plan was to stay out of the bunkers and give myself a chance for par. The key moment for me on the first nine came on the par-5 sixth hole. I hit my tee shot into the bunker, which is very bad news, and I was lucky enough to get a decent lie and advance it maybe 60 yards. I then hit my third shot through the green and into another bunker. I was somehow able to get up and down from there and make par. That was a big momentum builder for me. To be able to save par after having been in two bunkers was a pivotal moment in the round. When I got through the ninth, I had parred every hole. I’d executed the first part of my plan.
A Tiger surge
While I was making nine straight pars, Tiger was climbing up the leaderboard. He had started the day at 5 under—one stroke behind me and four strokes behind the leaders: Kisner, Schauffele and Spieth. But those guys were struggling—remember, it was a very tough and windy day—and at the turn Tiger was in the lead at 7 under par.
During the round, there hadn’t been much interaction between us, and that was to be expected—we were in the final round of the Open Championship. We had a few quick exchanges, but there wasn’t a lot of chitchat. Watching him first-hand, I was certainly aware of his movement up the leaderboard, but I was still calm. There was never a fear that Tiger was running away with the championship.
The March to victory
We made our way to the 10th hole. From there the course was primarily going to play downwind, and I knew there would be birdie chances. It was time to get a little more aggressive. I reeled off four more pars in a row—13 straight for the day—and things started to get real. On the par-5 14th, I flushed my driver over the bunker in the middle of the fairway and left myself a wedge into the green for my second shot. I ended up making four for birdie and I started thinking, “This is in my control. If I play the last few holes like I want to, I can close this out.” Tiger had fallen back, and after parring my way through 15, 16 and 17, I came to the 72nd hole two strokes ahead of Tiger and tied for the lead with Xander Schauffele at 7 under par. Eighteen was also playing downwind, and I was 100 percent focused on making birdie. I hit a good tee shot and left myself 115 yards to the hole. Tiger hit a great shot into 18, to about six feet, and the crowd was very loud, but I didn’t think about the birdie-bogey scenario that was in play. I was completely focused on what I had to do.
Tiger’s shot actually helped me refocus and visualize how my ball was going to react on the green. It showed me that it was possible to leave it close. I hit mine inside of Tiger’s ball, to about four feet. The birdie got me to 8 under par. Tiger was great at the end of our round. When I made the birdie putt, he immediately congratulated me. Then, in the scoring area, he was really generous and supportive for what I had done. I got to return the compliment a few months ago at the Masters. My 8 under at Carnoustie turned out to be enough to win the Open by 2 strokes. When it set in that I was the Champion Golfer of the Year, it was one of the proudest moments of my life.
What it has meant
A dream of mine since I was very young was to become the first Italian to win a major championship. Now that I have opened that door, I hope other Italians will someday win as well. But I’ll always be the first. When I reflect on what the last year has been like, I can say that my life has not changed all that much. Yes, I get recognized more, especially back home in England—and especially after my great run a few months after the Open at the 2018 Ryder Cup. It all comes with being a major champion. But off the course and at home, life is the same. I’m the same guy, sharing my success with my wife and kids. It’s all been very, very satisfying. Or as they say in Italian: Molto soddisfacente!