Ah, just another Saturday at the Masters.
Tiger Woods just might have put himself back in the business of winning major championships, after nearly 11 long years in exile.
A guy who carried a bag while grouped with Woods 13 years ago at the Masters rose to the lead will now play with him here as an equal. All that Francesco Molinari is carrying on the course this time is some Italian national pride, known to be rather prominent.
Three players came to the final hole on this third round chasing the course record, and came up one skinny stroke short.
Scores everywhere plummeted – why, to see more 60s than Saturday at the Masters, you’d have to go to a James Taylor concert.
There was so much winning golf in the third round, they just couldn’t wait to get to the fourth. They’ll tell you Sunday’s tee times were moved up more than five hours – the leaders are scheduled to go off at 9:20 a.m. – in order to beat approaching storms. But, really, couldn’t it have just been out of sheer impatience to see how all this is going to play out?
The last threesome Sunday – another concession to the weather, as the Masters weekend is normally a twosome thing – will be something of a testimony to Tiger Woods, past and present.
At 13 under, two up on his playing partners, Molinari owns a most peculiar connection to Woods. Back in 2006, the year after Woods won the last of his four Masters, Molinari’s brother, Edoardo, came here as the defending U.S. Amateur champion. That guaranteed him the first two rounds with Woods, the defending Masters champ. And on Edoardo’s bag was his younger brother Francesco.
“I carried the clubs and prayed that he was going to hit good shots,” Molinari said earlier this week summing up a much more simple experience. He knows, however, what it is like to be in the Woods wave pool, having played with him in the final round on the way to winning last year’s British Open.
Tied with Woods at 11 under is Tony Finau, who as a young kid of color and modest means was inspired to play golf and hit the ball very far by watching Woods win his first Masters in 1997.
“I’ve dreamed of playing in the final group with him in a major championship,” Finau said.
Then there’s Woods himself, who has traveled a long road back from the detours of his own making as well as the pain of a body in revolt. Thought pretty well finished in his quest to add to his collection of 14 major titles after spinal fusion surgery, Woods has proven himself very much back in the greatness hunt this week. What he did Saturday in shooting 67 was to bring back every roar and freshen every fond memory that he ever built here.
Sunday represents the first time Woods has played in the final group in a major on Sunday since the 2009 PGA Championship.
While all around him players were putting up the smallest of integers, Woods began his Saturday haltingly. A bogey on the par-4 5th hole, leaving him 1 over for the day, seemed to lead him engage in a serious discussion with himself.
“Yeah, I did,” he said.
And what was the gist of that analysis? “Just be patient, very simple,” Woods said. “The golf course is certainly gettable, a lot of scores going out there. Just be patient. Let the round build. We've got a long way to go.”
It worked. Rather that retreat, Woods rattled off three straight birdies, got his putter working and put himself just where he wanted to be. “That was the goal today, to start at 6 (under) and make sure I got to double digits. And I was able to do that,” he said.
There was no choice Saturday but to go low, or disappear.
Prior to Saturday, Finau’s most famous (infamous) Masters moment was the ankle dislocation he suffered while skipping down the fairway in celebration of an ace in last year’s Par-3 Contest.
Fast forward to Saturday, when it was Finau breaking everyone else’s ankles, putting together one devastating crossover dribble of a front nine (a record-tying 30) on the way to an unblemished 64. The guy leading this field in driving distance is the kind who can bend Augusta National to his will. “I’m driving the ball nicely,” Finau said, “and on this golf course, I can attack if I’m hitting my driver well. And I have been thus far.”
For so many, “moving day” at the Masters turned into something else quite enjoyable – “cruise ship limbo contest day,” in which some of the world’s leading limberbacks challenged each other to see how low they could go. Finau was but one of three players to challenge the course record of 63 and come up just short.
Another was Webb Simpson, who shot 64 and rose to 9 under overall. And Patrick Cantlay, who finished his 64 15 minutes before the last twosome had even teed off, let everyone know that Augusta National was in a docile mood, ready for its belly to be rubbed. The 27-year-old Californian had failed to fashion anything in the 60s in eight previous Masters rounds – so if he could go so low, anyone could.
The field seemed to take the hint.
There were 20 rounds in the 60s, more than in any other third round in Masters history. So many players kept pace that there are 10 other players within six shots of Molinari’s lead.
You perhaps have heard of some, like Brooks Koepka (10 under), Dustin Johnson and Matt Kuchar (8 under), Rickie Fowler and Adam Scott (7 under).
For all this explosiveness, Molinari has been the most quietly and steadily effective. His last and only bogey seems a lifetime ago – 11th hole on Thursday. He has almost eliminated the mistake from his bag. Not that he can’t go off - witness the four straight birdies Saturday on Nos. 12-15.
He knows that all can change on a Masters Sunday that will peak much earlier that usual.
“Obviously it's nice to be a little bit ahead, but you might just need one hole to change. You never know how it's going to go, especially around a course like here,” Molinari said.
“I think the key for me is to go out (Sunday) and just do my thing. Keep staying aggressive like I was trying to be today. Hit the shots. Hit the middle of the club face as often as I can and make smart decisions, and we'll just take it from there.”
As for Woods, the oldest of the threesome at 43, he had other plans.
“Well, try and get to bed as soon as possible,” he said.
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