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Molinari leads star-studded Masters leaderboard heading into final day

Tiger Woods two strokes back after 67 as Finau, Simpson and Cantlay all flirt with course record

Francesco Molinari plays his shot from the second tee during the third round of the Masters (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Francesco Molinari plays his shot from the second tee during the third round of the Masters (Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

By Adam McKendry at Augusta

When you think about Major golf, what we saw during the third round of the Masters is exactly what you imagine it being like.

Every time you counted somebody out, they did something to pull themselves back into the mix. On the back nine in particular it seemed like the top of the leaderboard was frequently alternating between 10 to 15 different names.

But, by the close of play, the top-11 was settled. Of those eleven, only five shots separate them. Of those eleven, four are within the top-10 of the world rankings. Of those eleven, six are past Major winners.

And of those eleven, one of them is a rampant, resurgent and crowd-pleasing Tiger Woods.

The 14-time Major champion is giving as good as he gets, playing as if he never had any injury problems and as if it isn't a whole ten years since he last won one of golf's four top prizes. This is the closest he's come to leading at Augusta since he last won in 2005.

Sure, he got no shortage of luck with some fortuitous lies after wayward drives - the ninth and 11th immediately spring to mind - but this was the former World No.1 at his masterful best, if you'll pardon the pun.

Woods produced five birdies from the sixth onwards, bouncing back from a dropped shot at the par-four fifth, to spark real belief that he can indeed end that Major drought and resume that pursuit of Jack Nicklaus' long-standing record.

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Tiger Woods smiles as he walks on the 18th hole during the third round of the Masters (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

His bravado was magnificent, as exhibited on the par-five eighth when he ripped a three-wood onto the green in two to set up a birdie, following a gained shot at the seventh. His ability to bounce back from a terrible drive into the trees on the 13th and make up-and-down from just shy of the greenside stream for birdie was admirable.

Most impressive was his ability to grind out scores. Having overhit the green on the 15th with his second, he made up-and-down for the birdie. A hole later, his towering tee shot landed just six feet from the pin on the par-three 16th for the birdie that took him to 11-under.

The crowds roared Woods on every step of the way, giving him all the help they could besides picking up the ball and putting it in the hole themselves. He will be the overwhelming favourite with the patrons on Sunday, make no doubt about it.

But the real star around the Cathedral of Pines has been Francesco Molinari, the Italian playing steady golf and surging into a two-stroke lead heading into Masters Sunday.

It was rarely flashy, as the Italian rarely is, but it was very effective as the World No.8 continued his steady style of play by extending his streak without a bogey to 43 holes by going flawless in a six-under par third round of 66.

The defending Open champion was barely talked about in the early stages as Woods stole all the headlines, but after opening with five consecutive pars, Molinari had late birdies on his front nine - at the sixth and eighth - to turn in two-under before picking up pace after the turn.

A glorious approach at the par-three 12th saw him roll in a short putt for a birdie and that started a run of four consecutive birdies to catapult him into a commanding position at the top of the standings, the 36-year-old rolling in nice putts at the 14th and 15th to move onto 13-under.

He'll be alongside Woods in tomorrow's final round, which could be an intriguing head-to-head battle between a golfer who rarely gives anything back to the course and the overwhelming fan favourite who will be driven on the whole way.

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Tony Finau hits to the 13th hole during the third round for the Masters (David J. Phillip/AP)

Alongside them will be Tony Finau and for a while it looked like his mark of 11-under was going to be the leading score heading into the final day after what was a special third round of eight-under par golf (64) as he put Nick Price's course record under serious threat.

The World No.15 did all of his damage on the front-nine as he carded four birdies and an eagle at the eighth in a blistering first half to his round, tying the record for the lowest front-nine ever scored at the Masters with 30.

Only a year on from that horror ankle twist at the Par 3 Contest, further birdies on 13 and 15 ensure that Finau will head into Sunday just two strokes in arrears and not lacking in any confidence, although he may be a little frustrated he didn't pick up one more stroke to join Price in the history books.

Elsewhere there were no shortage of players making their own moves up towards the summit of what is an incredibly bunched leaderboard heading into the final day's play at the opening Major of the season.

Brooks Koepka will start the final day a further shot behind Woods and Finau at 10-under after he had a fairly tumultuous day - which featured five birdies, an eagle and four bogeys - while Ian Poulter is still hanging in there at nine-under after an under-the-radar performance alongside Woods.

At one point Xander Schauffele was up as high as 10-under par, although he fell away late in the round with two bogeys at 15 and 18 to sit at eight-under, while Matt Kuchar is also in the mix at eight-under after he went round in 68, as are Justin Harding and Louis Oosthuizen on the same score.

Amazingly, all of the drama late in the day came after no shortage of drama among the earlier starters, seemingly unwilling to be left out of the fun that was to be had in the evening.

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Patrick Cantlay acknowledges patrons after finishing on the 18th green during the third round of the Masters (Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

Patrick Cantlay was the first to make his mark on the leaderboard, the World No.21 muscling his way into the equation early on by screaming up the standings having started the day at +2, making the turn in 32 having made four birdies.

The 27-year-old Californian used that momentum to add further birdies at the 11th, 14th, 15th and 17th to leave him needing a birdie at the last to tie Price's record, only to have to settle for a par to also card a 64.

Former US Open champion Webb Simpson was another to come close to the record as he also finished with a 64 that has him four back of Molinari at nine-under for the tournament, the World No.23 needing a birdie down the last to tie Price but unable to reach the required score.

Simpson even had a bogey in his round, but complemented that with six birdies and an eagle for another sublime eight-under par round on the day.

Meanwhile, Rory McIlroy is just hoping he can finish with a flourish in his final round after a second consecutive one-under par round left him on the same mark for the tournament and a whopping 12 shots behind Molinari.

The final round will tee off earlier tomorrow due to the threat of inclement weather in the afternoon, with the first groups teeing off at 7.30am ET (12.30pm UK) and the leaders getting underway around 9.20am ET (2.20pm UK).

Groups will include three players and there will be a split-tee start, with McIlroy paired with Keegan Bradley and Gary Woodland, who will head off on the 10th hole.

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