For a brief and exciting moment, Tiger Woods looked set to complete the greatest sporting comeback of all time and claim his 15th major.
Instead, Carnoustie belonged to Francesco Molinari, who produced a stunning display to become the first Italian to win a major and end America’s recent dominance of golf’s four main events.
A host of big names hoped the 35-year-old would slip up over the Angus course’s fiendishly tricky closing stretch as he sought to etch his name into the history books.
But when the pressure intensified, Molinari rose to the occasion and a round of 16 pars and two birdies – at the 14th and 18th – ensured he would not be caught.
The leaderboard was packed with stellar names but the focus was firmly on the pairing that teed off in the third last group of the day at 2.25pm – Woods and eventual winner Molinari.
After two solid if unspectacular rounds of 71, Woods exploded into life on Saturday with a five under par round of 66 to set up a fascinating final 18 holes that didn’t disappoint.
He started the day four shots adrift of American co-leaders Kevin Kisner, Xander Schauffele and defending champion Jordan Spieth.
It looked too far back to mount a challenge but the momentum quickly shifted in his favour.
Gusts of up to 25 miles per hour made playing conditions severely testing but Woods rolled back the years and made an early charge with birdies at the fourth and sixth.
As the former world number one started to climb the leaderboard, his rivals began to panic.
Kisner was the first to falter, a double bogey at the second followed by a dropped shot at the third. He would reach the turn in 40 blows.
Spieth also gave away three shots over the space of two holes to drop back to six under with a blemish at the fifth and a double bogey 7 at the sixth.
Suddenly, Woods was tied at the summit on seven under with fellow American Schauffele, who bogeyed the fifth and sixth before a costly double bogey 6 at the seventh meant Woods reached the turn with a one-shot lead.
The heaving galleries began to believe this was the day Woods, whose career looked all but over after four back operations in three years, was about to end a 10-year wait for a major. A vintage Woods moment followed on the 10th with a miraculous approach from a fairway bunker to help save par but he, too, would fall victim to the devilish Carnoustie conditions.
It all went wrong at the 11th. An errant approach hit a spectator. The subsequent chip rolled back off the green. A double bogey was followed by another dropped shot at the 12th and Woods was suddenly two back.
The excitement continued when McIlroy raised the decibels with an eagle at the par-5 14th to join a six-way tie for the lead on six under.
But, away from the drama, Molinari was quietly going about constructing a faultless round. After 13 consecutive pars, he moved clear at the top with a birdie at 14. Justin Rose and then McIlroy set the clubhouse target of six-under 278 before Schauffele joined Molinari at the summit with a birdie 4 at the 14th. But Molinari’s exquisite approach at the 18th left him with a 4ft putt to reach eight-under 276 with a round of 69.
When Schauffele, the only player who looked capable of reaching eight under, bogeyed the 17th to drop to six under, Molinari’s position as champion golfer of the year was secure.
Not the fairytale ending for Woods but this was an exhilarating day’s golf. The former world number one will take great confidence from being right in the mix on the closing stretch of a major and feel he can move from 14 to 15 before too long. The Wood effect rattled the three Americans who started the day in the lead with neither shooting better than 74, while Spieth’s challenge evaporated with a 76.
Molinari, however, already knew he had what it takes to get the better of Woods. He defeated the American to help Europe retain the Ryder Cup at the Miracle of Medinah in one of golf’s greatest comebacks.
This was every bit as impressive.