By Steve Keating
AUGUSTA, Ga. (Reuters) – Francesco Molinari surged two shots clear at the top of the Masters leaderboard on Saturday to set up another final round showdown with Tiger Woods for a major title.
It has been an almost flawless Masters for Molinari, who has carded just a single bogey through three rounds. The Italian turned in another error-free effort in Saturday’s third round, signing for a six-under 66 to top the leaderboard at 13-under.
Molinari, the first Italian to win a major with his victory at last year’s British Open, will start in pole position to claim a Green Jacket to go along with his Claret Jug.
Joining him in the last group will be Woods, who also paired with the Italian in the final round at Carnoustie, after the American electrified the massive galleries with a five-under 67, his best score at Augusta National since 2011 when he shot rounds of 66 and 67.
“He (Woods) obviously loves this place and he’s playing great golf,” said Molinari. “So I’m aware that it’s not going to be easy tomorrow, I can just do my best.
“But it’s not like I can only worry about him. There’s a lot of guys I think in with a chance.”
Woods and Molinari will be accompanied in the final round by Tony Finau, who matched Woods’s 11-under total with a dazzling eight-under 64 that featured a Masters record-equalling front nine of six-under 30.
Lurking one shot further back is twice U.S. Open champion Brooks Koepka, who scrapped his way to a three-under 69 to trail Molinari by three.
With the forecast calling for heavy rain and thunderstorms late on Sunday officials have decided to send golfers off in threesomes from both the first and 10th tees rather than traditional pairs in an attempt to get the final round completed and avoid a Monday finish to the year’s first major.
TRUMP ON TIGER
With Woods chasing his first major title since the 2008 U.S. Open, and first Green Jacket since claiming his fourth in 2005, ‘Tiger-mania’ is again reaching fever pitch.
Even United States President Donald Trump, who has golfed with Woods at his Mar-a-Lago resort, said on Twitter he was looking forward to Sunday’s final round.
“Great playing by
TigerWoods (at the) TheMasters. Tomorrow will be a big and exciting day for golf and for sports. Many fantastic players in the hunt. Ratings Gold – Good luck to all!,” tweeted Trump.
Woods was in contention on the final day at the last two majors but was unable to get over the line. He led on the back nine of the British Open before being overtaken by Molinari and finished runner-up at last year’s PGA Championship.
“It’s been a while since I’ve been in contention here,” said Woods. “But then again the last two majors counts for something.
“I’ve been in the mix with a chance to win major championships in the last two years and so that helps.”
While Finau is playing in just his second Masters the 29-year-old has displayed plenty of guts to go along with some superb form at Augusta National.
Famed for dislocating his ankle celebrating a hole-in-one at last year’s par-3 contest, Finau will now be remembered for matching the Masters record for the lowest front nine.
He joins five others — Johnny Miller, Greg Norman, K.J. Choi, Gary Woodland and Phil Mickelson — who have all carded 30 over the first nine holes.
“As a kid, I always wanted to compete against him (Woods)”, said Finau, who popped his ankle back in and bravely came back to finish 10th at last year’s Masters. “I’ve dreamed of playing in the final group with him in a major championship.”
With no wind and a layout softened by days of rain, the early starters attacked the pins and the Augusta record books with gusto, taking full advantage of the ideal scoring conditions on what is known as Moving Day.
The Masters course record seemed under constant threat with Finau, Webb Simpson and Patrick Cantlay all carding 64s, one shy of the mark owned by Greg Norman and Nick Price.
The three 64s were nonetheless the most in the same round at any Masters.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)