British Open champ leads Woods, Finau
Francesco Molinari started at the top of all the leaderboards around Augusta National Golf Club on Saturday morning, tied with four others.
He was there all by himself when a low-scoring third round of the 83rd Masters ended.
The 36-year-old Italian, who won the British Open last year for his first major championship, shot 6-under-par 66 and is two shots ahead of Tony Finau (64 on Saturday) and four-time Masters champion Tiger Woods (67) heading into the final round.
That trio will go off at 9:20 a.m. Sunday morning in a bid to beat the severe weather expected to hit in the afternoon.
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Play will start at 7:30 a.m., with threesomes going off at Nos. 1 and 10. Gates open at 7:15 a.m.
Molinari, who opened with 70-67, shot 4-under 32 on the back nine Saturday, striking for birdies on Nos. 12-15.
“Nobody ever talks about (Molinari), but he seems to be playing great every week,” said Justin Harding, who is five shots off the pace after rounds of 69-69-70.
It was the second consecutive bogey-free round for Molinari, who has now gone 43 holes without one.
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“My plan for tomorrow is to go out and do the same, but I think there’s going to be a few guys trying to mess up with my plan,” said the man known as Frankie to his friends.
The low-key Molinari said he gets excited just walking down Magnolia Lane when the Masters rolls around.
“I don’t have to be in the last group on Sunday to be excited,” he said. “It’s a special week. It’s always been a special week for me, even in the last few years where I didn’t play so well. I’ll just try to enjoy tomorrow as much as possible, and do my best, shot by shot, don’t get ahead of myself and see what happens.”
Casting the longest shadow over Molinari’s chances for the green jacket is the 43-year-old Woods, whose last of four wins here came 14 years ago.
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“He obviously loves this place, and he’s playing great golf,” Molinari said. “So I’m aware that it’s not going to be easy tomorrow. But it’s not like I can only worry about him. There’s a lot of guys I think with a chance. We’ve seen in the past years that a few shots' lead really don’t mean too much, and we’ve seen today that you can shoot 7- or 8-under the way the course is playing. I think there’s a lot more guys with a chance.”
In addition to Finau and Woods, the other chasers are led by three-time major champion Brooks Koepka, who is three shots off the lead after 69 on Saturday. Webb Simpson (64 on Saturday) and Ian Poulter (68) are four shots back.
But make no mistake, the focus will be on Woods, as it always is when he’s in contention. He’s going for his 81st victory on the PGA Tour.
“It’s always a great tournament when Tiger is in the mix, and he’s 100 percent in the mix,” Finau said. “It’s going to be a great Masters.”
A victory by Woods would cap one of the greatest comeback stories in sports. Two years ago, after three back operations, he couldn’t play here and thought his career was over. Spinal back fusion surgery now has him on the cusp of his 15th major championship.
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“That was the plan (to have a chance today) and here I am,” Woods said. “Interesting threesomes tomorrow. Usually, the reward for playing hard and doing all the things correctly you get a nice little sleep-in come Sunday, but that’s not going to be the case. We’ve got to get up early and get after it.”
That’s fine with Molinari, who already has one victory this year, at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March.
“It is what it is,” he said. “You can look at it both ways. The positive is that, yeah, you don’t have to wait until 2:30 to tee off. Hopefully we can go out and finish before the weather, the bad weather, gets here.
“I try not to be too fazed about that sort of stuff. It’s still going to be the same course for everyone. Obviously we’re going to play at the same time, and I just need to do my things and do them well and see if that’s going to be good enough.”
Finau and Simpson weren’t the only ones to shoot 64 on a day when the scoring average was 70.77, the lowest of the week. So did Patrick Cantlay (seven shots off the lead).
It was the first time that more than one 64 was shot in any Masters tournament, much less one round. In all, 64 has been recorded 17 times in Masters history.
Because of the decision to go to threesomes today, Finau now gets to play with his golfing idol, Woods, in the final round of the Masters. If there had been the normal twosomes, the final pairing would have been Molinari and Finau.
“As a kid, I always wanted to compete against him,” Finau said before he knew the final pairing. “I’ve dreamed of playing in the final group with him in a major championship, and it would be quite a cool thing for me if I were to play with him tomorrow in the final group of a Masters. It would be a dream come true for me.”