Molinari ahead of Woods, Finau by two shots
Leaders to tee off just after 9 a.m. today
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?