Francesco Molinari produced a world-class bunker shot to ensure he starts tomorrow’s final round of the Masters with a two-shot lead, writes WADE PRETORIUS.
The reigning Champion Golfer of the Year showed every bit of his class on Saturday as he quietly – in true Molinari fashion – went about putting together a round of 66 that caught almost everyone by surprise.
Level through the opening five holes, the Italian produced a stunning iron into the sixth for his first birdie before ensuring he kept place with the field with another gain at the eighth.
Three pars followed as the roars came flooding in around Augusta National which offered softer, more receptive greens than many were anticipating. There was little help from Mother Nature, who offered up only the slightest of breezes which made for excellent scoring conditions.
And the world’s finest players obliged as records tumble.
There had been no multiple rounds of 64 prior to today but that was erased by Patrick Cantlay, Webb Simpson and Tony Finau. The latter battering the course and came on the brink of shooting the first front nine 29 and then missed another chance at writing his name into folklore by failing to sink his final putt which would’ve seen him match the course record.
For Finau, though, he will be content with a place in the final group albeit two back of Molinari.
Joining Molinari and Finau in that group is none other than Tiger Woods; alongside Finau at -11.
The four-time Masters champion produced a vintage display on the back of a warm putter; he did not miss a single putt inside 10 feet.
It was far from perfect to start from Woods as he bogeyed the fifth for the third straight day. That appeared to ignite his competitive spirit as he rebounded with three birdies on the bounce.
Back nine birdies at 13 and 15 got him within touching distance before an exquisite tee shot on the par 3 16th and another perfect roll moved him to -5 for the day and into the last tee time on Sunday.
Current US Open and PGA Championship victor Brooks Koepka missed a putt at the last to join Finau and Woods at -11 and sits alone in third after a ‘quiet’ 69.
Molinari, though, saved the loudest roars for himself as he birdied four in a row from the 12th to surge into the lead.
Sunday promises to be a thriller with Ian Poulter (68), Dustin Johnson (70), Xander Schauffele (70) and South Africans Louis Oosthuizen and Justin Harding all within five of the lead.
Both Oosthuizen (71) and Harding struggled to make a move early on Saturday as they either needed back to back birdies to offset mistakes, the former, or suffered consecutive drops, the latter, to surrender the early gains on the front nine.
Oosthuizen birdied the toughest hole on the course with a kick-in birdie on 11 but couldn’t get up and down from behind the 12th to move back to level. The country’s No 1 then lost ground on the field when he played both 13 and 15 in regulation pars.
A closing putt from 24 feet on the last helped him join Harding, who was in the pairing in front.
The Stellenbosch star bogeyed the 10th for the second day in a row before a birdie on 12 was backed by another at the next. Birdies at 15 and 17 – from nearly 50 feet – helped undo some of the damage of his bogey at the 14th as he signed for a 70.
Just how anyone will overhaul Molinari is a question that will take some figuring out with the Italian now two full rounds without a bogey on one of the most punitive courses on the circuit.
Time will tell how the field plans to topple their Italian leader. Thankfully, it won’t take long for the answer as Sunday’s final round approaches rapidly.