AUGUSTA, Ga. — Francesco Molinari's first competitive round at the Masters in 2006 consisted of him carrying his brother's bag and involved Tiger Woods. Now to win his first green jacket, it looks like he'll have to hold off the 14-time major champ 13 years later.
It's a strange twist of fate that required another equally odd turn to come together. Thanks to a bleak Sunday afternoon forecast, the Masters made a rare—and prudent—choice to go with groups of three off split tees for the final round some six hours earlier than usual. And the decision could wind up having a huge effect on the day's dynamics as it allowed Woods to sneak into that final tee time at 9:20 a.m. EDT alongside Molinari and Tony Finau.
"It would be a dream come true for me," Finau said before the pairings were finalized.
For Molinari, he doesn't have to use his imagination. The Italian topped Tiger in a head-to-head meeting during the final round of the Open Championship less than eight months ago. Although the two were in the third-to-last group at Carnoustie, the tournament was in their hands for most of the day. Woods charged early to take the lead at the turn, while Molinari made 13 straight pars to start his round. But birdies on 14 and 18 sealed Molinari's first career major title and sucked the drama out of the final 30 minutes of the event.
After signing for a Saturday 66 that gave him a two-shot lead heading into the final round, though, Molinari said he wouldn't be thinking much about that experience.
"I think, to be honest, every tournament is different, and every time is a different story," Molinari said. "He obviously loves this place, and he's playing great golf. So I'm aware that it's not going to be easy tomorrow, and you know, like I said, I can just do my best. But it's not like I can only worry about him. There's a lot of guys I think with a chance. We've seen in the past year that a few shots' lead really doesn't mean too much, and we've seen today that you can shoot seven, eight under the way the course is playing. I think there's a lot more guys with a chance."
In fact, 10 players are within six shots of Molinari's lead, including Brooks Koepka, the winner of bookend majors around Molinari's Open victory, and Dustin Johnson. But for obvious reasons, golf fans will be focused on Woods, trying to win a first major since 2008, and the seemingly unflappable Molinari. When he won in July, Molinari didn't bogey his final 37 holes, an unfathomable accomplishment at Carnoustie. Currently, he's on an even better streak of 43 straight bogey-free holes. Is it Molinari or MACHINEari?
Meanwhile, Woods will draw on his experience at Carnoustie, but not because of the man he played with that final round. For Tiger, his Masters drought is up to 14 years after winning four of his first nine starts as a pro at Augusta National. He hasn't had many chances to win here since, either, however, he likes how he's been trending in the game's biggest events.
"It's been a while since I've been in contention here, but then again the last two majors counts for something," Woods said. "I've been in the mix with a chance to win major championships in the last two years. And so that helps."
Woods was referring to his close call at Carnoustie (he wound up two shots back at T-6) and at the PGA Championship the following month. On a steamy Sunday at Bellerive, Tiger shot a final-round 64, but couldn't quite catch the 54-hole leader Koepka.
Back in 2006, Woods, the defending Masters champ, shot 72-71 in the first two rounds playing alongside Edoardo Molinari, the reigning U.S. Amateur champ. Francesco caddied for big brother, who went 80-77 to miss the cut. (Francesco made his Masters debut as a player in 2010.)
Since then, Molinari isn't at the top of the list when you think of Woods rivals, but their paths have crossed on several important occasions. In addition to last year's Open, they played against each other in Sunday singles matches in back-to-back Ryder Cups in 2010 and 2012. Woods won the first and halved the second—Molinari didn't give him a late putt even after Europe had clinched the "Miracle at Medinah" win.
Despite all the players in contention, it's tempting to think of their latest encounter on Sunday as another head-to-head match—especially after Molinari was asked six different questions about Tiger in his post-round press conference. No matter what happens Sunday, he'll be asked even more thanks to the golf (and weather) gods. And if anyone has the winning answers against the legend in a red shirt, it's probably the guy who once wore a white jumpsuit around these parts.