He had played 49 holes without a bogey. He had needed just 15 putts through his first 11 holes. Four of the top-15-ranked players in the world — Brooks Koepka (No. 4), Xander Schauffele (No. 10), Tiger Woods (No. 12) and Tony Finau (No. 15) — were bunched in the last three groups around him and he played as if unaware. 

» Return to form: Another Tiger roar echoes at Augusta 

Even after the first body blow came at No. 12, when he inexplicably dropped his tee ball into Rae’s Creek that cost him a lead he had held for 19 holes dating to early Saturday afternoon, he promptly birdied No. 13 to hang on to Woods and Schauffele at the top of the board.

But you don’t double-bogey twice within four holes around this place and insist it's only a flesh wound. In just a few minutes, his days of precision went to pieces and he wound up an accessory to Woods’ historic star turn.

“Maybe next time, it will be better for me,” Molinari said, “But it was nice to be out with (Woods). He played well, he hit the right shots at the right time and deserved to win.”

Molinari had come to No. 12 with a two-shot edge and knowing he had already birdied the twice this week. With a breeze freshening from the approaching rough weather, club selection became the issue — Koepka and Ian Poulter had just found the water in the previous group — and Molinari was split.

“I was trying to hit a chippy 8-iron,” he said. “It was probably a 9-iron yardage (155 yards) and I didn't want the wind to gust and to get the ball too much. And I just didn't hit it hard enough.”

The ball hit the bank, rolled back into the creek and he took a double-bogey 5, missing an 11-footer for bogey but still tying Woods at 11-under. Though he and Woods both followed up with two-putt birdies on No. 13th to maintain that lead, the tournament felt different.

“We had the door open on 12,” Finau said. “That was the change of the tournament. Francesco hit it in the water.”

After a par at No. 14 — Molinari missed a 13-foot birdie try there even after studying how Woods putted the same line — his errant tee shot on No. 15 set up his demise. He wound in trees to the right and with no path to the green, he punched all the way across the fairway, finishing in the second cut on the left side, just 79 yards from the hole. There was a pine branch high above him. He calculated he could avoid it.

He was wrong.

“It was obviously close to the branches of the tree and we never know,” he said. “Probably if it doesn't clip the branch, it might go close to the hole. But I probably should have gone for the middle of the green and just wait for the last three holes to try and make something happen there.”

» Masters payout: Tiger pockets more than $2 million

His ball hit the pond almost the same instant a pine cone from the offending branch hit the ground in front of him. Woods birdied, Molinari took a 7 and the battle went on without him. Finishing at 11 under with a final birdie on No. 17, Molinari tied Jason Day, Webb Simpson and Finau for fourth.

It is a bitter balm but Molinari can post his numbers here without ducking. Even with his 74 on Sunday, he remains 14-under par over his last 10 rounds at Augusta dating back to 2017. Since he redirected his career with a new swing two years ago, his performances in the last six majors compare favorably to anyone on the planet: 2017 PGA T-2, 2018 Masters T-20, 2018 U.S. Open T-25, 2018 British Open winner, 2018 PGA T-6 and 2019 Masters T-4.

Afterward, he allowed himself a should-of-could-of, but only briefly.

“That ball on 12, if it’s one yard further left, it probably goes in the bunker,” he said. “And like I said, the third shot on 15, it could have easily not clipped the tree. Sometimes it's your day; sometimes it isn't.

“But I’m really happy with the way I felt out there. I was calm, collected, even after the first double-bogey. I think I learned a lot from today. Obviously, I've done some things that I wish I had done differently now, but I'll learned from my mistakes.”

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