By Martyn Herman
CARNOUSTIE, Scotland (Reuters) - Francesco Molinari kept the coolest head in Carnoustie as he plotted a steady course through a wild afternoon of nailbiting tension at the British Open on Sunday to become the first Italian to win a major.
With a strong breeze causing mayhem at the top of the leaderboard which Tiger Woods topped with nine holes left, the 35-year-old Molinari produced a flawless 69 to claim victory by two strokes.
Huge crowds were willing playing partner Woods to claim a fairytale 15th major a decade after his last one, but it was Molinari who wrote his own script.
As overnight leaders Jordan Spieth, Xander Schauffele and Kevin Kisner endured a rollercoaster ride, Molinari carded 13 consecutive pars before making his move.
He rolled in a birdie on the par-five 14th to move into the lead on seven-under.
With Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy in the clubhouse on six-under, Schauffele fought back from a 40 outward nine to get to seven-under but Molinari was unflappable as he birdied the 18th to all but seal victory.
There was still the anxious wait in the recorder's cabin while the groups behind finished their rounds but he could celebrate when Schauffele's second shot to the 18th never threatened the eagle he needed to force a playoff.
"Congratulations to the runners-up as well. It has been a tough fight. There is only one winner unfortunately in golf, this time it is me but congratulations to them," Molinari said at the presentation ceremony.
"Obviously, it is incredible to stand here between all of these people. There are a lot of people I should thank. First of all my family for travelling all around world, my wife for being a really big part of my team and my family back in Italy."
Molinari, playing in his 36th major, finished on eight-under 276, two shots ahead of Schauffele, Rose, McIlroy and Kisner. Woods finished tied sixth on 279 with Eddie Pepperell and Kevin Chappell -- the former world number one's first top-10 finish at a major for five years.
"The way Francesco played today was beautiful," the 42-year-old Woods, who had looked on course for a fairytale comeback until a double-bogey on the 11th halted his charge, said.
Jordan Spieth's hopes of emulating Woods by winning the Claret Jug for a second successive year withered away as he slumped to a final-round 76 on a desperately hard scoring day.
Spieth, who began the day on nine-under, had looked assured as he began with four pars, but the wheels began to loosen with a bogey at the fifth and started to fall off when a trip to a gorse bush ended with a double-bogey at the sixth.
McIlroy had struggled to make any headway but when he eagled the 14th he rocketed to the top of the leaderboard.
Rose also eagled the par-five 14th -- the only hole that was offering any gifts as a course so docile on Saturday bit back.
(Reporting by Martyn Herman,; Editing by Toby Davis and Ed Osmond)