Moli­nari takes 2-shot lead into fi­nal round

The Fresno Bee (Sunday) - - Sports - BY DOUG FER­GU­SON

Record scores on the white boards at Au­gusta Na­tional. Ground-shak­ing roars for Tiger Woods along the back nine.

Francesco Moli­nari blocked out the buzz on a deliri­ous day of nine play­ers shar­ing space atop the leader­board Satur­day. He emerged with an­other rock­solid round that looked spec­tac­u­lar only on his score­card.

Moli­nari ran off four straight birdies on the back nine for a 6-un­der 66 that kept Woods and ev­ery­one else at a short arm’s length go­ing into a Sun­day un­like any other at the Masters – an early start be­cause of storms fore­cast for Sun­day

af­ter­noon, with three­somes go­ing off the first and 10th tees. The lead­ers were to tee off at 9:20 a.m.

That puts Woods in the fi­nal group at the Masters for the first time in 12 years, two shots be­hind.

Moli­nari played with Woods on the fi­nal day at Carnoustie last sum­mer and out­played the 14-time ma­jor cham­pion amid a crowded leader­board to win the British Open. This is dif­fer­ent. This is Au­gusta Na­tional, where the gallery that cheered louder with each birdie by Woods made it clear they were aching to see the four-time cham­pion slip a green jacket over a red shirt for the first time since 2005.

“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 and, like I said, I can just do my best.”

Woods has not played in the fi­nal group at a ma­jor since he gave up a two-shot lead to Y.E. Yang at Hazel­tine in the 2009 PGA Cham­pi­onship

He got there Satur­day with three straight birdies on the front and fin­ished with three birdies over his last six holes for a 67, his best score at the Masters since the fi­nal round in 2011.

Join­ing them will be Tony Finau, play­ing this year on two good an­kles af­ter a self-in­flicted in­jury a year ago. He was part of a his­tory-mak­ing Satur­day as one of three play­ers to shoot 64.

Moli­nari was at 13un­der 203.

The Ital­ian doesn’t get ex­cited eas­ily, whether he’s cradling a claret jug or go­ing 5-0 in the Ry­der Cup. His strat­egy doesn’t change in any en­vi­ron­ment – try to hit the ball squarely, play smart, avoid bo­geys. It’s work­ing so well that Moli­nari goes into the fi­nal round hav­ing gone 43 con­sec­u­tive holes with­out a bo­gey.

“A lot of guys are play­ing great. I wish I only had to worry about him,” Moli­nari said of Woods.

An­other shot be­hind was Brooks Koepka, who has won three of the last six ma­jors and had a 69 de­spite four bo­geys.

Woods has won all 14 of his ma­jors when he had at least a share of the lead go­ing into the fi­nal round. He brings mo­men­tum to this ma­jor, hav­ing con­tended in the last two.

“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.”

Moli­nari knows what kind of at­mos­phere Woods brings to a ma­jor. Woods briefly took the lead at Carnoustie last year, but the Ital­ian never flinched, play­ing bo­gey-free to cap­ture his first ma­jor.

Au­gusta Na­tional might sound dif­fer­ent than a tough links along the North Sea of Scot­land.

This is where Woods first cap­tured the at­ten­tion of the sport­ing public when he set 20 records in win­ning the first of his four green jack­ets. This is the gallery that has longed to see him re­cap­ture the past, es­pe­cially af­ter four back surg­eries that only two years ago left him hob­bling up the stairs, won­der­ing if he would play again.

Woods looked good as new, even for a 43-yearold who hasn’t won a ma­jor in nearly 11 years.

“I’m just thank­ful to be able to come back here and play again,” Woods said.

He joined the chas­ing pack on a day when go­ing neu­tral meant los­ing ground. The 65 play­ers com­bined to go 80-un­der par, at 70.77 the sec­ond­low­est scor­ing av­er­age in Masters his­tory.

Webb Simp­son, who also shot 64, joined Ian Poul­ter (68) at 9-un­der 207, four shots be­hind and very much in the pic­ture. The group an­other shot back in­cluded Dustin John­son, who bo­geyed his last hole.

CHAR­LIE RIEDEL AP

Francesco Moli­nari hits a drive on the 17th hole dur­ing the third round of the Masters on Satur­day in Au­gusta, Ga.

CHRIS CARL­SON AP

Francesco Moli­nari hits from the fourth tee dur­ing the third round of the Masters on Satur­day in Au­gusta, Ga. “A lot of guys are play­ing great,” Moli­nari said of this Masters.

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