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Masters 2019: Tiger Woods faces the talent he helped create in final group

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AUGUSTA, Ga. — Tony Finau may not have slept that mid-April Sunday night in 1997 after he'd watched Tiger Woods absolutely blitz the field in the Masters to take his first major championship.

It was a transcendent sporting moment that made a 7-year-old kid of Tongan and American Samoa descent, growing up in Utah, dream of wearing his own green jacket someday.

As for Francesco Molinari, who was 14 that spring, he's not even sure he stayed up until the wee hours of the morning in Italy to watch a golf hero in his country, Costantino Rocca, get smoked by 15 shots in Woods' record-setting win.

MASTERS SUNDAY: Follow the leaderboard | Sunday tee times

"We all knew how it was going to end," a grinning Molinari said, 22 years later, on Saturday evening of the 83rd Masters.

Two men who were but boys when Woods turned golf upside down will stand next to the 43-year-old on the first tee on Sunday morning at Augusta National Golf Club.

They are sizeable obstacles between Woods and his first Masters win in 14 years, and a first major triumph in 11.

Molinari showed no reverence for Woods' past achievements when he outdueled him in the final group to capture last year's British Open, and the 38-year-old shot 6-under-par 66 on Saturday to get to 13 under and hold a two-shot lead over Finau and Woods.

Normally, the Italian would be in the fourth round's final twosome with Finau, who went out early in the third round and scorched the soft, vulnerable course with a record-tying 30 on the front nine and one of three 64s carded on the day.

But a massive storm front that is supposed to roll into Augusta by the afternoon on Sunday forced the Masters committee to make the rare concession to tradition and send off threesomes, from the first and 10th tees, beginning at 7:30 a.m. (ET).

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The leaders were set to tee off at 9:20 a.m. and, barring delays, were expected to finish at around 2:30 p.m.

Augusta Chairman Fred Ridley said the safety of those on the grounds was a top priority, and the Masters is trying to avoid a Monday finish for the first time since Seve Ballesteros won in 1983.

The threesomes put Woods in the final grouping after he turned a renewed Tigermania up another notch by shooting a six-birdie 67 that was his best Masters round in eight years.

The top three were an impressive 19 under par in the third round, and no one among the first six players scored higher than the 69 of Brooks Koepka, who stood alone in third at 10 under.

Former U.S. Open champion Webb Simpson charged with a 64, putting him in a tie at 9 under with Ian Poulter (68). Former UCLA star Patrick Cantlay also shot 64 and was tied for 14th.

With four wins at Augusta, Woods is the only player among the top contenders to have won here, but at least the top six seemingly have a shot. Since 1990, every winner has come from those who were tied at fifth or better heading into the final round.

"It's been a while since I've been in contention here. But then again, the last two majors count for something," said Woods, who tied for sixth behind Molinari in the 2018 British Open and finished second to Koepka in August's PGA Championship.

"That helps," he said. "Tomorrow, it will be interesting to see if that wind comes up like it's forecast. Fifteen to 20 mph around this golf course is going to be testy. Got to be committed, hit the proper shots and then hopefully we time it right."

After his round, as Woods negotiated the roped-off phalanx of fans between the 18th green and the scoring room at the clubhouse, hundreds called out his name and desperately reached for a rare hand slap or a slight brush of his shirt.

"He touched me!" a young boy beamed to his dad.

Woods has that rock star-like effect on the public again, and Molinari and Finau can attest to what he's meant to them.

Molinari, in a recent Golf.com interview, said of Woods, "He's not that much older than me, but he was an absolute idol for many of us. He was Michael Jordan."

MORE: The story behind the famous 'Augusta' theme song

Fittingly, Francesco Molinari first met Woods at Augusta National when he caddied for his brother, Edoardo, who'd earned a spot in the 2006 Masters by winning the U.S. Amateur. As the tradition goes, the brothers -- one in golf clothes, the other in caddie bib -- were paired with Woods for the first two rounds.

"I was massively nervous from the excitement," Francesco recalled for Golf.com. "I was living a dream, walking the fairways of Augusta, looking at Tiger. He didn't play particularly well, but you could see he was completely different from everyone else. It was golf on another planet."

Finau, who is 29, has said on a number of occasions that Woods' 1997 Masters win and his subsequent domination was his prime motivation for playing golf.

"Tiger is a huge, huge inspiration and influence on me," Finau said on Saturday.

They first met, he recounted, at Woods' restaurant in Jupiter, Fla., in 2015, when Finau was a PGA Tour rookie and Woods hosted a dinner for all of the Nike staff players.

Sitting next to Woods, Finau was star struck, and it sounded as if he might have to dial some of that admiration back on Sunday.

On Saturday afternoon, before Finau was certain he'd be grouped with Woods, he said, "I've dreamed of playing in the final group with him in a major championship, and it would be quite a cool thing for me."

Oddly, their only previous pairing together came this year at Torrey Pines in the first two rounds of the Farmers Insurance Open. Finau shot 69-69, Woods scored 70-70. For the tournament, Finau tied for 13th with an 11-under total. Woods was only one stroke behind, tying for 20th.

One of the most powerful drivers on tour, Finau has roughed up the Augusta course this week the way Woods used to. He's 10 under on the par 5s, matching his total for four rounds in his Masters debut last year, when he tied for 10th.

"History always tells us the guys that play the par 5s well are the ones that go on to win the tournament, and that go on to be in contention," Finau said. "That's where my advantage is, anyway, but in emphasis here at Augusta National."

Woods, who entered the week an incredible 156 under on the par 5s for his career (he's a cumulative 68 over on the other holes), has had to spread his efforts around. He's only 5 under on the longest holes and made three of those birdies on Saturday.

"I don't need to go after every single flag. Just put the ball in the correct spots so I can have gettable looks and gettable putts," Woods said of his strong third round. "I was able to do that, and I tried to keep the ball below the hole as best as I possibly could.

"I made sure that I had those type of looks, and if I gave myself those looks the way that I'm hitting my lines, I'm going to be all right."

Augusta can be handled in many ways. It doesn't get much better than Molinari's four-hole stretch on Saturday's back nine. He birdied the par-3 12th, the par-5 13th, par-4 14th and par-5 15th.

"Played the back nine probably as good as I've ever played over here," Molinari said. 


This article is written by Tod Leonard from The San Diego Union-Tribune and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to legal@newscred.com.

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