Francesco Molinari heard all the roars for Tiger Woods a few groups ahead at Augusta National Golf Club www.augusta.com in Augusta, Ga., and didn’t let that faze him.
The 36-year-old Italian, who claimed his first major title last year in the Open Championship at Carnoustie while playing alongside Woods, shot a bogey-free 6-under-par 66 to take a two-stroke lead over Woods and Tony Finau in the 83rd Masters.
“I didn’t hit the ball as well as I did yesterday, but I made more putts, especially on 4 and 5 to save par,” said seventh-ranked Molinari, who showed he was in form heading to the first men’s major of the year when he captured the Arnold Palmer Invitational last month. “As always, I just tried my best on every shot and played well again.
“Tomorrow is going to be exciting. We’ll have to see what the weather is like, but I can’t just worry about Tiger because there are a lot of guys up there who can go low. The course today was pretty getable to if it stays that way somebody could go out and shoot 8- or 9-under.
“So hopefully we can play (despite the weather) and I have to just stay aggressive and keep playing good golf.”
Molinari, whose only bogey in 54 holes came on the 11th hole in round one, grabbed the lead with four straight birdies through No. 15 and finished with a three-round total of 13-under 203.
Because of an incoming storm, tee times were moved ahead several hours and the golfers will play in threesomes that will start on both the first and 10th tees. Molinari will play in the last group off No. 1 alongside Woods and Finau.
Woods, 43, a 14-time major champion who has won the Masters four times, collected three birdies on each nine in a 67 that was his best round at Augusta National since 2011.
“I putted well today,” said Woods, has not won a major since the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. “Yesterday, I had the lines, but just had to get the speed right and I did that. I made my only bogey at No. 5 and then got rolling. Probably the only real miss was at 8 for eagle.
“We just have to go out tomorrow and see what the golf course gives us. There is some whether coming in, so we’ll have to see what happens. It’s going to be different. Usually, if you’re playing well, you get to sleep in on Sunday, but we’re going off early in threesomes on both nines.
“I have to get up about 4 o’clock to get this body ready.”
Finau, 29, who showed last year he could be a major player by tying for 10th in the Masters, finishing solo fifth in the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills and tying for ninth in the Open Championship at Carnoustie, eagled the eighth hole and barely missed a birdie putt on the ninth to just miss a front-nine record of 29 hole, but tied the Masters record of 64 set by Nick Price in 1986 and tied for Greg Norman in 1996.
“Hit a good putt (on 9), thought I made it,” said Finau, whose only PGA Tour victory came in the 2016 Puerto Rico Open. “I didn’t know (both were for records). Conditions are perfect and the greens speeds remained the same for three days and you can make putts. The golf courser hasn’t changed much from the last couple of days and I used that to my advantage today.
“I love the history of this place from watching Tiger play here when I was growing up. The patrons here are great. I used last year to get experience here and this time I’m off to a great start.
“I’ve also used the experience from Shinnecock to my advantage so far. That was first time I was really in contention in a major and in the last group on Sunday.”
Fourth-ranked Brooks Koepka, who has won three majors in the last two years, is three shots back in solo fourth, while Webb Simpson eagled the 13th hole en route to matching Finau’s 64 and is one more down in a tie for fifth with Ian Poulter of England, who had a 69.
Second-ranked Dustin Johnson totaled 70 and is five behind in a tie for seventh with 10th-ranked Xander Schauffele of La Jolla and San Diego State, who also had a 70, Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa, who wound up at 71, Matt Kuchar, who finished at 68, and Justin Harding of South Africa, who came in at 70.
Ninth-ranked Rickie Fowler of Murrieta shot 68 and is in a tie for 12th with 2013 Masters champion Adam Scott of Australia, who had a 72, while fifth-ranked Justin Thomas carded a 69 and is in a tie for 14th that includes eighth-ranked Jon Rahm of Spain, who totaled 71, and three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson, who wound up at 70.
Two-time Masters champ Bubba Watson is tied for 20th after a 67, 2015 Masters champion Jordan Spieth posted a 69 and is tied for 22nd, while sixth-ranked Bryson DeChambeau of Clovis shot 73 and is in a tie for 31st that includes low amateur Viktor Hovland of Norway, who wound up at 71.
Third-ranked Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland is tied for 39th after a 71 and saw his chances to complete the Career Grand Slam this week fade, while defending champion Patrick Reed is tied for 47th following a 74.
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