Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 23, 2018

From Rocca’s Magic To Molinari’s Resolve

The 1995 Open Championship was the twenty-fifth time that golf’s oldest major was contested over the Old Course at St. Andrews. That was an especially significant number for the ancient links, for it meant the home of golf finally surpassed Prestwick as the most frequently used venue in the Open rota. The latter layout, a hundred miles to the southwest, was the course upon which the first Open was played in 1860 and its sole venue for the next dozen years. After that Prestwick remained a frequent Open site for another half century, but the venerable course has not been in the rota since 1925, when it became clear that the compact links could not handle the crowds that the tournament attracts.

So when the time came for the Old Course to finally take its rightful spot atop the leader board of Open venues, fans naturally hoped for a dramatic tournament. Those desires were rewarded in unexpected fashion at the very end of play, when Italy’s Constantino Rocca came to the final hole. Rocca had begun the day in second place, a shot behind New Zealand’s Michael Campbell, with whom he was paired. Both had struggled, and each came to the short par-4 trailing John Daly, the flamboyant American who had pieced together a 1-under par 71 and who was sitting just yards away in the iconic R&A clubhouse.

Both hit their tee balls down the expansive fairway, with Campbell’s very nearly reaching the green. But he was two adrift of Daly, and when his next shot failed to find the hole his chance for the Claret Jug was gone. Rocca was just one back, and could tie for the lead with a birdie. Yet that too seemed a hope gone a glimmering when he flubbed his second, the ball coming to rest almost seventy feet from the cup at the very bottom of the Valley of Sin, the deep swale that fronts the 18th green. A look of anguish creased Rocca’s face, even as he reached for his putter. With his caddie tending the flag he took a hard swing with the flat stick, sending his ball up the steep slope, onto and then across the putting surface. It curled to the right with the slope of the green, running toward the hole as if on an invisible track. There it disappeared from view, like the climax of a magician’s trick; for surely sorcery was required for such an improbable shot to be holed. Rocca fell first to his knees and then lay prostrate, his clenched fists pounding the turf in joy. When at last he rose to the cheers of the crowd, the countenance that only moments before had been so pained was split by a joyous smile.

As magical as Rocca’s shot was it did not lead to victory. Daly prevailed in the four-hole playoff that followed, the American winning his second major title. But Rocca’s career was about much more than one impossible putt. Later that year he helped Europe win the Ryder Cup with a hole-in-one that boosted he and partner Sam Torrance to a 6&5 thumping of Davis Love III and Jeff Maggert in a foursomes match. Two years after that Rocca bested a young Tiger Woods in singles play, winning a crucial point as Europe retained the Cup 14 ½ to 13 ½ at Valderrama. And he won five times on the European Tour, including the 1996 British PGA, one of that tour’s premier tournaments. Now 61, Rocca has mentored succeeding generations of Italian golfers in his role as that country’s most accomplished professional.

His mentoring will surely continue, but the ebullient Rocca was finally displaced at the pinnacle of Italian golf this weekend. An hour’s drive north of St. Andrews, where Rocca came ever so close, 35-year-old Francesco Molinari finished the job, topping a star-studded leader board at Carnoustie to win this year’s Open Championship by two shots.

While the enduring image of the ’95 Open is Rocca’s lightning strike of high drama, Molinari’s triumph will be remembered for his weekend of steely resolve. The patron saint of this Open was not Harry Houdini, but Rudyard Kipling. For Molinari kept his head as all about him others were losing theirs; and he trusted himself even as pundits and fans had their doubts, placing their faith in more famous golfers, especially Molinari’s playing companion. Late in Friday’s second round, Molinari dropped a pair of shots at the challenging par-4 17th hole. While the double bogey was surely painful in the moment, its significance would not be clear until he was clutching the Claret Jug two days later. With his tournament not yet at its midpoint, that hole was to be the last on Molinari’s scorecard to be marked with a number greater than par.

To play bogey-free golf on Saturday was not all that surprising, as the wind laid down and Carnoustie played the role of friendly host. Like Molinari, Jordan Spieth and Kevin Kisner both turned in scorecards free of blemishes. They finished the day tied at the top with fellow American Xander Schauffele at 9-under. Kevin Chappell was two back, followed by Molinari a further shot adrift after his 65, and a logjam of seven players at 5-under, including Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Matt Kuchar and Tommy Fleetwood.

Sunday was an entirely different story, as the wind returned in earnest and Carnoustie bared its teeth. Of the eight players in the final four pairings, only Molinari traversed the layout under par. The three leaders were among the first to stumble. Kisner made double bogey at the 2nd hole and added a bogey at the 3rd. Schauffele played five, six and seven in 4-over par, and Spieth’s round unraveled with a bogey at the 5th and a double at the 6th.

Their travails allowed Woods, who was playing with Molinari, to climb the leader board, and when he claimed sole possession of first place at the turn the predictable frenzy among fans and the media was quick to erupt. But while his game shows every sign that he can win again, at age forty Woods is no longer the overwhelming force that can seize a major by the throat and make it his own. No sooner had he moved into first than horribly wayward shots at the 11th and 12th produced first a double bogey and then a bogey.

Meanwhile Molinari appeared content to let his fellow competitor hold the spotlight while he quietly went about his business. He opened with thirteen straight pars, though it was not all fairways and greens. At the par-5 6th both his drive and approach ended in pot bunkers, but a five-footer saved par. Later in the round two longer par putts both dove into their targets. Finally at the par-5 14th hole Molinari broke his string in a positive way with a two-putt birdie. He added one more at the last for a round of 69 and an 8-under total. McIlroy and Justin Rose both charged late but ran out of holes before they could catch Molinari. Finally only Schauffele stood in the 18th fairway with a short approach that had to go in to tie. But this year’s Open did not feature any 72nd hole magic, and 8-under was two better than McIlroy, Rose, Kisner and Schauffele.

And so in Italy the torch is passed, from Constantino Rocca to Francesco Molinari, from Bergamo to Turin, from Lombardy to Piedmont. While he admitted once the Claret Jug was in his grip that at Carnoustie “there was everything to make someone nervous,” on the course Molinari appeared to be anything but anxious. His reward at day’s end was hearing himself, Italy’s first major winner, introduced with that most cherished honorific, “the champion golfer of the year.”

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Responses

  1. A well-written account of the tournament, Mike. I like the backstory w/Rocca and Woods.
    Ω


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