AUGUSTA, Ga. — The word for Masters Sunday:
Fear of stormy weather that had the lords of Augusta National scrambling for super-early tee times Sunday morning and sending players off both No. 1 and No. 10 in the final round for the first time ever. Fear and soaking in Augusta.
Fear of Tiger Woods, who is stalking the lead once again in pursuit of his fifth green jacket.
Thunderous cheers for Woods rattled the pines and shook petals off the azaleas Saturday with a 5-under-par 67 that moved him to 11 under after 54 holes. It was like olden times at Augusta National Golf Club, a cell-phone-free oasis that does olden times better than just about anyplace else.
It is time to test the theory of whether Woods’ mere presence on the leaderboard can scare the Surlyn out of his fellow competitors. Guys of Woods’ generation — your Phil Mickelsons, your Ernie Els, your Fred Funks, if you will — all bear the scars of getting their souls crushed by Woods.
Molinari doesn’t have that. He was paired with Woods in the final round of last year’s British Open and watched as Woods took the lead midway through the final round. But Tiger faded down the stretch into a tie for sixth while Molinari chugged on to the claret jug.
Molinari may have the face and charisma of a mortician, but he is one rock-solid player. He didn’t make the first bogey on the weekend at Carnoustie and is grinding away at an even better mark here. He has made a grand total of one bogey, on the 11th hole in Thursday’s first round. That’s a streak of 41 straight holes.
Asked if having played with (and beaten) Tiger at Carnoustie would help his comfort level Sunday, Molinari soberly replied: “I think how I hit the ball will determine my comfort level. I won’t think about Carnoustie. Anything can happen.”
If there is someone who epitomizes “anything can happen,” it’s the third member of the final group, Tony Finau. You remember Finau here last year, making an ace in the Par-3 Contest, then running down the fairway in delight, then dislocating his ankle, then popping it back into place on the fly (Ewww!).
Finau still managed to wind up in a tie for 10th place despite that cringeworthy moment. He’ll try to do a few spots better Sunday as he chases after his first major, paired with the guy whose 1997 Masters victory (which concluded 22 years ago Saturday) inspired him to play golf in the first place.
“As a kid, I always wanted to compete against him, and (now I) have the opportunity,” Finau said. “I’ve dreamed of playing with him in the final group of a major championship.”
For most players in Finau’s position, dreams of being paired with Woods have been burned down into nightmares. But again, no scar factor, just excitement, may play in Finau’s favor.
The winner of the Masters usually comes from the final group, but it would be unwise to forget Brooks Koepka, playing one group ahead, three off Molinari’s lead at 10 under.
Koekpa was watching the Masters last year nursing a serious wrist injury — he didn’t return to the PGA Tour until the Zurich Classic of New Orleans two weeks later — but has had a Vintage Tiger-like run of major championship dominance lately. Koepka has won three of the last six majors he’s played — two U.S. Opens and a PGA Championship — and is one tough competitor as well.
In other words, the return of the king at Augusta that so many golf fans are craving and wishing for may not come to pass. In the midst of all the Tiger renaissance euphoria, reviving memories of his 14 major championships past, it is also worth remembering he has never won a major when coming from behind.
As for the looming menace of the storm front heading this way, even with the early start the final group won’t be finished until at least 2 p.m. EDT, when the chance of rain is already ramping up to about 50 percent. If there is a playoff, well, we might still see a Monday finish, and finally find out if Augusta National is going to scratch the check for a retractable roof over the entire course.
You could just hear Masters Chairman Fred Ridley saying this much: “We got tired of rain delays, so we upped the cost of every pimento cheese sandwich 50 cents, and we should have it all paid off by next year. I’m sure the patrons will understand.”
Everyone will understand if the patrons come unglued at the prospect of Tiger winning.
But the other contenders also have game. And more excitement than fear, at least for now, of battling with Woods for the green jacket.