There’s no sound in golf to match the roars at the Masters and no noise at Augusta National that comes close to the cacophony accompanying Tiger Woods when he’s holing putts and punching uppercuts.
On another mesmerising afternoon at the 83rd edition, the sound that’s been missing for years was back as the rejuvenated and rebuilt Woods shot a third round 67 – his lowest round at Augusta for eight long years – to set up what’s shaping into the perfect final day.
Remember 1986 when 46 year old Jack Nicklaus took on the best of the young guns Seve Ballesteros and Greg Norman and showed them who’s boss? Perhaps 43 year old Woods is about to come up with the most fitting of sequels, as he takes on the mighty Open Champion Frankie Molinari, current double major winner Brooks Koepka and gifted young gunslinger, Tony Finau.
Francesco Molinari put in another solid round at Augusta to take an outright lead of -13
The Italian is continuing his sublime year of golf by making a charge for the green jacket
All logic suggests one of that modern trio should win, given that Woods hasn’t won any major for 11 years and this particular one since 2005. But this has the potential to be one of those mystical days when logic is overshadowed by the awesome vision of true greatness.
Throw other contenders like Ian Poulter, former US Open Champion Webb Simpson and world number two Dustin Johnson into the mix, and not even the vile weather forecast, with tee-times moved up to try to avoid the threat of severe thunderstorms, can lessen the excitement.
Woods said he’ll probably have to get up about 4am to get the body ready in time for a 9-20am start but who needs sleep anyway with the prospect of winning a 15th major?
The early start means the players will go out in threeballs. Thirteen years after Molinari caddied for his brother Eduardo Molinari at Augusta when he played with Tiger in the first two rounds, now the younger brother will take on the man they all look up to for real.
Tiger Woods came prowling on moving day and now sits just two shots off the lead in Augusta
What’s happened to the 36 year old from Turin over the past year is truly extraordinary. He took down Woods to win the Open last year and begins with a two stroke lead over Tiger and Finau following a wonderful 66. Over three days he’s made one bogey, which almost defies belief at Augusta, and he kept that going with an exquisite long bunker shot at the 18th to 3ft.
If he carries on in that vein, not even Woods will be able to stop him from becoming the first Italian to win an American major, and the first man to go from the white boiler suit to the green jacket.
Koepka also took down Woods, at the US PGA last August when they conducted their epic duel on the final day. He looked like he was losing touch but, as he invariably does, found an extra gear with an eagle at the 15th to be just three adrift.
Poulter, who trails by four, coped wonderfully with the Woods fanfare, putting on his Ryder Cup blinkers and delivering a fine 68 of his own. The gains came late at the 13th and the 15th before the best of them at the 18th. Ever the showman, Poulter listened to the deafening reception for the man with whom he shared the afternoon walk and then rolled in his 20ft birdie putt.
‘I really enjoyed the day and played great from tee to green,’ he said. ‘If I can play like that in the final round and hole a couple more putts, I’ll give myself a chance.’
Then there’s Finau. When he finished in the top ten on his Masters debut last year despite dislocating his ankle during the par three event, it begged the question: what would he achieve when fully fit?
Molinari has gone 42 holes without a bogey and continues his strong form on the big stage
The Italian played a sublime bunker shot on the 18th to lay up perfectly to finish his round
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The exciting 29 year old American provided a rather emphatic response as he blitzed round the front nine in just 30 strokes on his way to a wonderful 64.
‘I think I showed I have a pretty good pain threshold,’ he said last year, when asked about his overall performance. It might be nothing, however, compared to the mental agonies he’ll need to overcome today if he is to end a three year victory drought and claim his first major.
Finau might be surrounded by proven Grand Slam winners but he showed last year that he looks like a major winner in waiting himself. He played in the final group at the US Open at Shinnecock Hills alongside Koepka, eventually finishing tied fifth – one of three top tens that he made in the majors and he also made the cut in the other.
‘I think the US Open experience will serve me well and I can use it to my advantage, for sure,’ he said. Finau suffered his dislocated ankle while celebrating a hole-in-one in the par three on the eve of the Masters, but it didn’t sour his experience. ‘I just loved this course from the start, I felt instantly that it was right up my alley,’ he said.
Molinari will take to the crucial final day at Augusta in a group with Woods and Tony Finau
Beginning four strokes behind the starry quintet of major champions who led at halfway and teeing off 90 minutes before the final pairing, the big-hitter had caught them all by the time he stood on the 7th tee and burst past them at speed after stroking a stupendous second shot to tap-in eagle range at the par five 8th.
Two more birdies at par fives, the 13th and 15th, gave him his memorable score.
With the ball flying a long way in the humidity and the greens retaining moisture, the players had a green light to attack the course. There’s never been multiple 64s before in the same Masters – and here there were three on the same afternoon. Simpson delivered one and so did American Patrick Cantlay, although he’s still seven back.
Given the quality names at the top, expect more low scoring in the calm before the storm on a day that will assuredly be compelling and perhaps prove one for the ages.
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