Tiger Woods poised to strike as Francesco Molinari leads Masters

Thunderstorms threaten Sunday afternoon

By Rob Hodgetts, CNN
Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

Tiger Woods plays his shot from the 14th tee during the final round of the TOUR Championship at East Lake Golf Club on Sept. 23, 2018, in Atlanta.

If Saturday at the Masters was electric, Sunday could be supercharged.

The threat of severe thunderstorms has forced Augusta National officials to instigate a two-tee start in groups of three, with the leading trio of Francesco Molinari, Tiger Woods and Tony Finau off at 09:20 a.m. ET instead of in pairs mid afternoon.

The hope is to get the fireworks wrapped up on the course before they come down from the sky.

In Saturday's third round, if you weren't surging forwards you were going backwards.

Four-time champion Woods parred his first four holes and was disappearing in the leaders' rear view mirror, but when he finally engaged gear at the seventh, he, too, roared up the leaderboard. A fifth birdie at the 16th sparked a tumultuous roar as he tied for the lead.

By the end of a sun-drenched, dazzling day of golf, Italy's British Open champion Molinari held a two-shot lead at 13 under over Woods and Finau going into the final round.

'Great test'

Woods, of course, is trying to pull off a fairytale comeback with a fifth Green Jacket 14 years after his last, and a 15th major 11 years after his previous triumph. Inspired by his comeback season last year from spine fusion surgery, including second at the US PGA and culminating in a first victory for five years at the Tour Championship, Woods is rekindling memories of his heyday.

The 43-year-old has now been in white-hot contention in his last three majors and retains the steely focus of the old warrior.

"This is a chance to win a major championship so I'm ready," he told BBC Sport, talking of Sunday's early start. Woods also said he was embracing the idea of adding to his major tally.

"That's part of the deal," he said. "I'm playing for my fifth but I'm trying to win a golf tournament at the end of the day. I've just got to go out and execute. It's going to be a great test for all of us."

READ: Tiger Woods' charge lights at Masters

'Good fun'

Off the course, the consensus is Woods has mellowed over the years and become more approachable after his injury woes and life struggles. Walking off the 18th following his impressive and at times fortunate 67 Saturday -- three times he drove into trees but escaped with a shot at the green -- he was all smiles and trading high and low fives with children and patrons lining the ropes.

"Since he's come back to the sport he hangs out more, he wants to enjoy the life," said Europe's Ryder Cup captain Padraig Harrington, a three-time major champion, talking to BBC Sport.

England's Ian Poulter, Woods' playing partner Saturday, said of the circus that comes with playing with him: "It's never easy. It's always loud, especially when he's making plenty of birdies. But it was fun, he was good fun to play with."

Molinari held off the charging Woods to clinch the Open at Carnoustie last year and has previous with the American at Augusta. Molinari first attended the Masters as a caddie for elder brother Edoardo, the US amateur champion, in 2006. They played alongside defending champion Woods in the first round.

'Hogan-like'

Now, after a stellar season last year, and further success this term, the Italian could be the one to deprive the old master. The last player to win the Open and then clinch the next Masters? Yep. Woods.

Molinari has always been a solid player, but his work with renowned performance coach Dave Alred, alongside swing tutor Denis Pugh, is paying dividends as he translates pressure and accountability in practice into an ice-cool demeanor on the course. He emerged from Saturday's melee with a bogey-free 66 -- making it 43 straight holes without a bogey -- to set a relentless pace.

"This is Hogan-like," said BBC commentator Ken Brown, referring to legendary US pro Ben Hogan, who won nine major titles.

READ: Dave Alred: The guru teaching golfers think like 'assassins'

Then there's Finau, the man who dislocated his ankle celebrating a shot in the par-3 contest on his debut last year before going on to finish tied 10th. The Salt Lake City native, the first player of Tongan-Samoan heritage on Tour, led the charge for most of Saturday. He was the first to push the lead to 10 under as he chases only his second top-flight victory and first major title.

"I'm driving the ball nicely and I can attack the golf course if I'm driving well," said Finau, who was one of three players to shoot 64. "I feel good, I feel comfortable.

"More than anything I needed to keep my foot on the gas pedal."

READ: Woods close as Koepka and DeChambeau lead the Masters

READ: Tiger Woods: I don't need to win the Masters, but I really want to'

Wild Sunday

The softer, more receptive course meant good scores were attainable and Webb Simpson and Patrick Cantlay also shot 64s -- previously there had only ever been one round of 64 or better in a single Masters tournament. However, forecast strengthening winds and the threat of storms could make scoring more difficult Sunday.

In recent times, the Masters champion has tended to come from the final pairing, but the nature of this year's event suggests this one might be less predictable.

Behind the leading trio lurks American Brooks Koepka, the reigning US PGA and two-time US Open champion who has won three of his last six majors.

Koepka began Saturday in a five-way tie for the lead, with Molinari among others, but he trod water for much of the round before an eagle at the 15th en route to a 69 took him to 10 under.

READ: Amen Corner: A former champion's guide to the toughest stretch in golf

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Simpson, the 2012 US Open champion, and the 43-year-old Poulter, who is still chasing a first major despite his long-time Ryder Cup heroics for Europe, sit on nine under.

In all, 10 players are within five shots of the lead, but the rest will be aware the record comeback over the final 18 holes at the Masters is the eight shots Jack Burke Jr. made up to win in 1956.

Nick Faldo also overhauled a six-shot deficit to beat Greg Norman by five in 1996.

Buckle up. Sunday could be wild.

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