Moli­nari ahead of Woods, Finau by two shots

Lead­ers to tee off just after 9 a.m. to­day

The Buffalo News - - THE MASTERS - By Barry Svr­luga

AU­GUSTA, Ga. - All the play­ers around Tiger Woods on the leader board - so ac­com­plished, so ready to take this Masters - need to know a few things about their leg­endary ad­ver­sary. They need to know that, if Woods is to win his 15th ma­jor cham­pi­onship Sun­day, he will do some­thing he has never done be­fore, and that’s come from be­hind on the fi­nal day.

Francesco Moli­nari, the Ital­ian who leads the Masters by two at 13 un­der par, needs to un­der­stand that the last of Woods’ four Masters ti­tles came in 2005, the very year a 22-yearold Moli­nari joined the Euro­pean Tour. It’s so, so long ago.

Tony Finau, the 29-year-old from Utah who is tied with Woods be­hind Moli­nari, must re­al­ize that he is fac­ing a player who hasn’t taken a ma­jor in nearly 11 years. Brooks Koepka, an­other shot back, must gain con­fi­dence from the fact he has three ma­jor ti­tles in two years - a stretch that re­sem­bles Woods’ prime, but which Woods hasn’t pro­duced in a dozen years.

Woods’ third-round 67 was the de­fin­i­tive devel­op­ment dur­ing a hot and heavy Satur­day at Au­gusta Na­tional Golf Club, be­cause it brings eye­balls to the event that would oth­er­wise glance else­where. But it also in­tro­duces an odd dy­namic to the fi­nal round of the Masters, one in which the play­ers in con­tention are si­mul­ta­ne­ously bow­ing to Woods’ unar­guable leg­end - while un­der­stand­ing quite well they can beat him.

First, the rev­er­ence, be­cause it’s gen­uine.

“He’s one of those sport­ing icons that you don’t need to be Amer­i­can to ap­pre­ci­ate what he’s done and the way he plays,” Moli­nari said.

“He was,” Finau said, “my golf­ing idol.”

Sun­day, be­cause im­pend­ing bad weather moved up the fi­nal-round tee times and ne­ces­si­tated play­ers be grouped in three­somes, those two will tan­gle along­side Tiger, the Masters at stake. It is, in a way, in­con­ceiv­able to both of them. Satur­day was the 22nd an­niver­sary of Woods’ tran­scen­dent win at Au­gusta Na­tional, the 1997 ti­tle that changed golf. Finau, all of 7 at the time, watched, riv­eted, be­cause of the ath­leti­cism and the charisma, the cool fac­tor. He took up the sport that sum­mer in large part be­cause of Woods.

“Just watch­ing Tiger dom­i­nate the way that he did was very in­spir­ing for me, for some rea­son, as a kid,” Finau said.

At home in Italy as a teenager, Moli­nari watched the cov­er­age pri­mar­ily be­cause Woods’ play­ing part­ner in that fi­nal round was Costantino Rocca, one of the few great Ital­ian golf­ing he­roes. And yet, he can’t re­mem­ber if he stayed up into the wee hours to see the con­clu­sion.

“We all knew how it was go­ing to end,” Moli­nari said.

Once, there was a time, when we all knew how it was go­ing to end. That’s a pri­mary dif­fer­ence come Sun­day. Fif­teen years ago at Au­gusta - or any­where - the field might have un­der­stood the in­evitabil­ity Tiger then rep­re­sented. Now, there’s no way to know.

Since his last ma­jor ti­tle at the 2008 U.S. Open, Woods has un­der­gone four back surg­eries, not to men­tion life-al­ter­ing per­sonal tur­moil. He is in a bet­ter place now, both phys­i­cally and men­tally, and he is of the be­lief that his ap­pear­ances in con­tention at last year’s fi­nal two ma­jors – the British Open and the PGA Cham­pi­onship – means he’s ready to take that fi­nal stride fur­ther.

“It’s been a while since I’ve been in con­tention here,” Woods said. “But then again, the last two ma­jors count for some­thing. I’ve been in the mix with a chance to win ma­jor cham­pi­onships in the last two years, and so that helps.”

Un­like years past, though, there is hope for his com­pe­ti­tion. In last year’s British, Woods briefly held the lead in the fi­nal round be­fore an er­rant tee shot at the 11th led to a dou­ble bo­gey. His play­ing part­ner that day: Moli­nari, who calmly shot 69 to win his first ma­jor. The next month, at the PGA, Woods hung up a fi­nal-round 64, which Koepka looked at calmly and beat with his own 66 to win by two.

The pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion of play­ers, Woods’ con­tem­po­raries - guys such as Ernie Els and Vi­jay Singh and, to an ex­tent, Phil Mick­el­son - can, in low mo­ments, feel de­prived. Dur­ing their primes, Woods inar­guably took ti­tles they might have won in­stead. The cur­rent gen­er­a­tion doesn’t carry the same scars.

“It’s not like I can only worry about him,” Moli­nari said. “There’s a lot of guys with a chance.”

That just wasn’t the way Woods once was dis­cussed. But it is un­de­ni­ably true now. Just con­sider the play pro­duced by those at the top of the leader board. Both Finau and Webb Simp­son - tied with English­man Ian Poul­ter at 9 un­der, four be­hind Moli­nari – fired 64s on Satur­day. How good is that, even in soft, prime-scor­ing con­di­tions? In 85 Masters rounds, Woods has never posted a 64.

Finau’s charge be­gan with a 4-iron from 260 yards out on the par-5 eighth, a blind shot he poured to a foot from the pin. As he ap­proached the green and peeked at the ball, Finau looked across to the ninth fair­way, which Rickie Fowler was strid­ing down. “Not bad, huh?” Finau said. “Yeah, well, you could have made it,” Fowler re­sponded.

A joke, but still. That’s the stan­dard th­ese guys are hold­ing each other to. Moli­nari played in Satur­day’s fi­nal pair­ing with Aus­tralia’s Ja­son Day. He had never en­tered the week­end at Au­gusta in the top 20, much less shar­ing the lead. Still, check him for a pulse. He knew Woods was climb­ing, par­tic­u­larly after roars for his fi­nal two birdies at 15 and 16.

“With Tiger, you don’t even have to look at the leader board,” Moli­nari said. “You hear what’s go­ing on, pretty much.”

Moli­nari’s re­sponse: flaw­less golf. In Thurs­day’s first round, he bo­geyed the dif­fi­cult 11th. It re­mains his only bo­gey of the tour­na­ment. Satur­day, his 66 was a pur­pose­ful, steady - but ab­so­lutely gor­geous - march for­ward.

“My plan for to­mor­row,” he said, “is to go out and do the same.”

That’s true, even know­ing Woods will be there, wear­ing red. The ma­jors he won all came when he woke up Sun­day with the lead. This Sun­day, he’ll rise and pre­pare to play in the fi­nal group at a ma­jor. What used to be old hat will feel brand new.

“I al­ways feel pres­sure,” Woods said. “The day I don’t feel pres­sure is the day I quit.”

When he reached the fi­nal green Satur­day evening, the cu­mu­la­tive to­tal of five hours in Au­gusta’s swel­ter – in the pres­sure – pooled on Woods’ face. Sweat dripped from his cheek, and he asked cad­die Joe LaCava for a towel.

With that, Tiger Woods took off his hat and wiped his en­tire head. He is back in the heat, but the dy­nam­ics are dif­fer­ent than they were in the day. Can he beat back the kids who once hung his poster on their walls, but aren’t the least bit in­tim­i­dated by what he might pro­duce right next to them?

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