CARNOUSTIE, Scotland -- The course lived up to its Car-nasty moniker on the final day of The Open. Players littered the course's rough, the bunkers receiving much more raking than they had previously, and all the while the wind swirled as the world's best golfers oscillated between gauze bushes and eagles.
It was box-office sport. The wind had picked up, changing direction and frequently leaving the players in golf's equivalent of purgatory as they attempted to make educated estimates on club selection. Francesco Molinari captured the Claret Jug with an 8-under 276 on a day when chaos ruled at times, going against golfing tradition.
"Golf is very slow. You're not supposed to get too chaotic," Xander Schauffele said afterward. He was in the midst of Sunday's madness and witnessed the shot that proved to be the catalyst for the afternoon's bedlam.
It was at approximately 4:03 p.m. local time when Jordan Spieth sent his second shot on the sixth into a jagged bush.
Marshall David Dawson knows every blade of grass on this course, having been a longtime member of Carnoustie, but even he had not ventured this way before. Spieth tentatively strode up the banks hugging the fairway, and then his predicament became clear. He called for all hands on deck to help him find his well-hidden ball. Marshals, media and course officials pored through the brambles, Spieth having called for his jumper to protect his hands, but he still came away with a cut finger. After a nervous wait, Dawson took a step into the bush, and there was Spieth's ball.
"Come on guys, give me five minutes' respect," Spieth shouted to the bubbling crowd, and then moved the photographers away. He went on to double-bogey the hole after missing a routine bogey putt.
It was just one isolated, outsized incident as golfing theatre was playing out all around, with roars coming from Tiger Woods' group as he went on the charge. As Spieth trudged off the sixth green, he snuck a peek at the leaderboard.
"I looked up, and I saw Tiger at No. 1, and he was leading solo," Spieth said, "and I went to Michael [Greller, my caddie], 'Dammit, I looked at the board, dude.' I was frustrated at myself. He's like, 'He hasn't been in this position in 10 years, and you've been here how many times in the last three years?' He was throwing it back at me. I was like, I feel fine. It's OK. This is what you dream about anyway."
But unlike at Royal Birkdale last year, when a lengthy trip around the practice grounds at the 13th hole sparked Spieth to life on his way to a thrilling victory, the sixth was just one of the downturns of a limp round from the defending champion and overnight leader.
Spieth was playing in the final group alongside Schauffele, who was ticking along nicely among more illustrious names. At one point walking down the sixth, one punter said to his pal, "Who's that guy in the pink?" "He's the course leader," his friend responded. "Oh."
But Schauffele's own setback was to come a hole later on the seventh, as he found the rough, topped his recovery shot and hacked his way to double-bogey.
"Jordan and I got off to a weird start feeding off each other in the worst ways possible, and we sort of kind of calmed the sails midround," Schauffele said afterward. "We just were in the strangest spots possible on the golf course, you know, where we didn't think we would be."
Campaigns have collapsed around less stressful holes, but he kept on plugging away until going from a birdie chance on the 16th to then bogeying the 17th and finishing at 6 under in a four-way tie for second. Those standing around the course now know Xander Schauffele is far more than a game-winning score in Scrabble.
Rory McIlroy's round was one of inconsistency at this stage: two birdies, three bogeys. But then came a thrilling eagle on the 14th. He celebrated by skipping around to face the grandstand and punching the air, and for the next couple of holes the bounce was back in his step. His confidence flowing, McIlroy suddenly looked best placed to take the Claret Jug, but he was unable to follow up with birdies, finishing at 6 under.
"It was great, just to be a part of it and hear the roars," McIlroy said. "Tiger being back in the mix. You know, everything. There's a lot of big names up there. It was nice to be a part of it. For a while, I thought Tiger was going to win. My mindset was, 'Go and spoil the party here.'"
Alongside McIlroy at 6 under, but having come from much, much further back, was Justin Rose. He finished the final five holes with an eagle on 14 and a birdie on 18, to card a closing 69 and sit among those waiting for the leaders to slip up. Rose had to sink a 13-foot putt to birdie the 18th on Friday evening to avoid the cut. When he tapped in for another birdie at 18 -- his fourth of the tournament there -- Rose was the clubhouse leader and, momentarily, entertained thoughts of a place in a multiplayer playoff.
"I hadn't felt the energy of the crowd for a while in The Open," said Rose, who finally registered a finish better than his tie for fourth as an amateur in 1998. "That was a real positive for me, and it renewed the love of The Open for me."
It was the strangest experience walking around the course as the drama unfolded. The claustrophobic layout meant you were forever glancing around as cheers arose, floating on the breeze coming off the Angus Coast. And the Tiger effect loomed large over the scorched plains. As he weaved up to the top of the leaderboard, nostalgia overflowed. Woods there in the red top, plundering the course for every shot possible, only 455 days removed from back surgery.
"I've done it [competed] so many different ways. It didn't feel any different," he said afterward, but ultimately, he finished tied for sixth alongside Englishman Eddie Pepperell and American Kevin Chappell. Pepperell was another Sunday charger, teeing off before midday and shooting a 67, only to admit later he wasn't exactly feeling his best.
"I was a little hungover," Pepperell said. "I won't lie. I had too much to drink last night."
Sandwiched between Woods and Molinari's group and the closing pairing of Spieth and Schauffele were American Kevin Kisner, tied for the overnight lead, and Chappell. Both fizzled out via bunkers and bushes.
Yet all the while the forgotten man in Woods' group was stringing together a bogey-free round, the only one of the 79 players Sunday to manage that feat. It was only as the likes of McIlroy's and Woods' rounds failed to tip over the 7-under mark that Molinari suddenly emerged as the man most likely to win the whole thing.
"Clearly, in my group, the attention wasn't really on me, let's put it that way," Molinari said.
The practice putting green here at Carnoustie sits a short walk away from the madness of the 18th green. The groans and cheers of the galleries are unavoidable. When Molinari had finished with a 2-under 69 -- birdieing the last, momentarily celebrating the moment with caddie Pello Iguaran -- he attempted to maintain focus by hiding in plain sight on the practice green, later saying it was a way to alleviate the nervous nausea. Crowds started to congregate around him, aware that as his fellow leaders closed out with bogeys and pars, they were witnessing a potential champion. Molinari momentarily remembered he was booked for the 9 p.m. flight home; he was going to miss it.
The final, clinching moment came when Schauffele's approach to the 17th green strayed right and into the rough, behind a bush, leaving him with an impossible approach over a bunker. Bogey followed, leaving him needing to make eagle on the last to force a playoff.
So when Schauffele's approach to the 18th failed to find the cup, a smile broke out across Molinari's face, he turned to Iguaran, they hugged, and suddenly he had a major championship next to his name. Molinari had been there and thereabouts all week. He had come into the tournament with two wins and two second-place finishes in his previous four events, but he does not attract the same blinding spotlight as the Tigers, McIlroys or Spieths of this world.
The quiet-spoken Italian just went about his business in a relentlessly steady fashion, chipping away at the course, barely making a noise, just taming Car-nasty in his own way.
"If someone was expecting a charge, probably they weren't expecting it from me, but it's been the same the whole of my career," Molinari said. "I'm lost for words really. Incredible to do something like this, and very proud of what I've done."
He now has "Champion Golfer of the Year" as his title for the next 12 months and he has broken the American stranglehold on the majors, and it was fitting that on a day of drama, it was a man of unerring nerve who took the Claret Jug home.