AUGUSTA, Ga. – Francesco Molinari blocked out the buzz from Tiger Woods charging up the leaderboard Saturday at the Masters and produced solid golf that looks spectacular only on the scorecard.
Molinari played bogey-free for the second straight round at Augusta National and took advantage of the rain-softened course for a 6-under 66, giving the British Open champion a two-shot lead going into a Sunday like no other at the Masters.
Because of severe storms in the forecast, the final round will start off hours early, teeing off on both sides and with players in threesomes instead of pairs. Officials hope that speeds up the finish to early afternoon, ahead of the rain.
That puts Woods in the final group of a major for the first time since the 2009 PGA Championship at Hazeltine, where he gave up a two-shot lead on the final day to Y.E. Yang.
Woods made 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 13-under 203, two shots ahead of Woods and Finau.
“Obviously, he’s playing great,” Molinari said of Woods. “But a lot of guys are playing great. I wish I only had to worry about him. I think a few more are going to come out tomorrow and try to shoot a low one.”
Another shot behind was Brooks Koepka, who has won three of the last six majors and had a 69 despite four bogeys. Corey Conners (71) of Listowel, Ont., was tied for 22nd at 4 under, nine shots behind Molinari.
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. He was paired with him in the final round at Carnoustie last year, where Woods briefly took the lead and 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-year-old who hasn’t won a major in nearly 11 years. Not since 2013 in the British Open as Muirfield has he been within two shots of the lead.
He joined the chasing pack on a day when going neutral meant losing ground on a course in which 65 players combined to go 80-under par, at 70.77 the second-lowest scoring average in Masters history.
When he rolled in a 7-foot birdie putt on the par-3 16th, and the massive gallery rose to their feet with yet another ear-splitting roar, Woods became the ninth player Saturday who had at least a share of the lead.
Molinari, playing in the final group, kept right on rolling.
When he saved par from a bunker on the 18th hole, it was his 43rd consecutive hole without a bogey. That streak started on the 11th hole on Thursday, and it’s the only bogey he has made all week.
“I hit the ball a little less well than yesterday,” Molinari said. “But I holed some really good putts at 4 and 5 to save par. I can only be happy about today. It will be an exciting day tomorrow.”
No one figures to be as excited as Finau, who last turn grotesquely turned his ankle celebrating a hole-in-one in the Par 3 Tournament, and still managed to tie for 10th. He nearly holed a 4-iron on the par-5 eighth on his way to a record-tying 30 on the front nine that sent him to his 64.
Because of the change in starting times, Finau gets to play alongside Woods – his golfing hero – not only at the last group in a major, but at the Masters. Finau said it was “something that I’ve dreamed of for a long time.”
“As a kid, I always wanted to compete against him and have the opportunity to … you know, I’ve dreamed of playing in the final group with him in a major championship.”
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 only made birdies on the par 5s and bogeyed his last hole for a 70.