The Australian challenge faltered at Augusta National today, and Italy’s reigning Open champion Francesco Molinari emerged as the man to beat in the Masters.
Both Adam Scott and Jason Day had rough days having started out with a share of the lead.
On what turned out to be the lowest scoring round in Masters history with three players shooting 64s, they could not afford it.
Scott (72) had a dreadful day with the putter, missing opportunity after opportunity and taking bogey with a three-putt at the last to leave himself at seven-under par, six shots from the lead and needing a miracle tomorrow.
Day (73) also bogeyed the last after a poor approach but his big mistake was at the par-five 15th, where he spun his wedge shot into the water in front of the green and took double bogey seven. He is at six-under par, seven shots back.
The field shot 80-under par on the third day, a record, including three players at 64, which put the performances of Day and Scott in context. Five players started out with a share of the lead and four others – Tiger Woods, Xander Schaffele, Tony Finau and Webb Simpson – touched the lead across the day.
The final round has been brought forward by Augusta National to a 7.30am two-tee start because of impending weather issues, meaning the leaders will go off at 9.20am (11.20pm AEST). Woods, who is in the final group, said he would need to rise around 4am to prepare. Dozens of club Masters breakfasts around Australia have been impacted upon by the change.
Molinari shot a near-flawless 66 to take a two-shot lead into tomorrow’s final round at 13-under par. He will play alongside Woods, who shot 67 today, and Tony Finau, who leapt out of the pack with his 64. Both are two shots back but there are others in the pack with a chance, headed by three-time major champion Brooks Koepka at 10-under, just three back from Molinari.
The 36-year-old Italian, ranked seventh in the world, is relentless with his ball-striking and managing his golf ball and he did not make a single bogey all day. In fact, he has made just one all week – at the par-four 11th hole on Thursday – to show how consistent he has been. He has shot 70, 67, 66, getting better each day, and lowering his best at Augusta.
His appearance at the top of the leaderboard is no surprise, although in truth, he has not played especially well at Augusta National in the past (best finish tied-19th). The fabled course is generally suited to bigger hitters, but Molinari is tough and he has mastered his game in the past two years, winning the Open Championship at Carnoustie last July – his first major triumph – and then collecting five of five possible points in Europe’s remarkable Ryder Cup victory over the United States.
Ironically Molinari’s first appearance at Augusta in 2006 was as a caddie for his brother Edoardo, who made the field as the US Amateur champion. The photos of him in the white jumpsuit walking with Tiger Woods have gone viral this week already, given that he might well end up wearing the green jacket tomorrow.
You can almost guarantee he will not be intimidated, even with Woods in his grouping (the club choosing to play the final round in threes). Molinari had Woods as a playing partner at Carnoustie less than a year ago, and it did not bother him then. “I wish I only had to worry about him but there’s a few more I think are going to come out tomorrow and try to shoot a low one,” he said.
Woods, the four-time Masters champion, kept the dream alive with his rollicking 67 today, grabbing a share of the lead and sending roars across the Georgia course when he rolled in a birdie putt from close range at the 16th to take a share of the lead at 11-under par. That was before Molinari made his back-nine charge, making four consecutive birdies from the 12th.
Woods, the former world No. 1, has been superb all week; today, he did not miss a putt from inside 10 feet all day. He has not won a major since the 2008 US Open and we all know the story of what happened to him since. If he makes a run tomorrow, Augusta will be rocking.
Of the Australians, Scott was the one who had the best opportunity, immediately hitting it close at the first and making birdie. But chances went begging, from the downhiller at the second, to the three putts from the front fringe at the short par-four third, to the miss from inside two metres at the fourth … it just kept happening. When he eventually made a putt of substance, a 12-metre right-to-left curler for birdie at the 12th, he fist-pumped as if to say: ‘Finally’.
But at the par-five 15th he missed another chance and it just was not his day. Unfortunately, the troubles with the putter are all too familiar. Bogeys at the 16th from the right trap, and from the front of the green at the 18th, left him almost certainly too far back to win.
Cameron Smith (69 today) made his way through the field today. “It’s been one of those frustrating weeks, I guess, not being able to commit to shots that I usually can play,” he said.
Marc Leishman (70 today) made a great eagle at the 15th and played quite nicely without ever threatening to contend.
-11 Woods, Finau
-9 Simpson, Poulter