AUGUSTA, Ga. — Rory McIlroy has ghosts here, 70 yards to the left of the 10th fairway, where he hooked a drive to begin his meltdown at the 2011 Masters. Jordan Spieth has ghosts here, swimming in Rae’s Creek, where he left two balls and his chance to win the 2016 Masters.
Tiger Woods? He has four green jackets but no ghosts. He has finished second here twice, but those were not the kind of second-place finishes that haunt a man’s nights. He just got outplayed. The closest things he has to ghosts here, as he chases a fifth green jacket Sunday morning, will be two men who stand in his way.
Woods is contending in his third straight major. Last July at Carnoustie, Francesco Molinari outdueled Woods to win the British Open. The next month, Brooks Koepka calmly fended off the challenge from Woods at Bellerive to win the PGA.
Now Molinari sits at 13-under, two strokes ahead of Woods (he shot 67 Saturday) and Tony Finau, and three strokes ahead of Koepka. The media is already arranging a menu for Woods’s champions’ dinner next year, but Molinari and Koepka are not feeling as nostalgic.
Woods and Phil Mickelson would be better theater. Woods, McIlroy and Spieth would be an historic showdown of golf idols. Koepka and Molinari do not excite the masses in quite the same way, but they are probably the two golfers in the world who are most likely to see WOODS on the leaderboard and not give a damn.
“He obviously loves this place and is playing great golf,” Molinari said. “I’m aware that it’s not going to be easy tomorrow. But it’s not like I can only worry about him. 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 or eight under the way the course is playing.”
Does his experience with Woods at Carnoustie make him more comfortable?
“I think how I hit a ball tomorrow will help my comfort a lot more than thinking about Carnoustie,” Molinari said.
At Carnoustie, Molinari was in a similar situation: paired with Woods in a jumble of big names chasing a championship. But Spieth was the third-round leader. This time, Molinari is two strokes clear of the field. And he knows that helps a little—but only a little.
Molinari once caddied here for his brother Edoardo. The idea that he could win his second major on the same course is the kind of rags-to-riches story that more Americans would embrace if he were, you know, American. Instead, it’s fair to say that virtually everybody on the course will be cheering for Tiger over the Italian.
It was like that at Carnoustie, too; after Molinari won, he said, “Clearly in my group the attention wasn't really on me. Let's put it that way.” But this will be different. This is Woods’ home country, and in a way, his professional golf home, too.
There was a loud collective gasp here Saturday afternoon, the kind you hear when somebody dunks an approach on No. 15 or gacks a putt on No. 16. But the gasp this time was because the leaderboard was updated to show that Molinari birdied No. 14. That put him at 12–under. Woods was unlikely to catch him.
As for Koepka: he was supposed to be too thin to win this week, or struggling too much, or too mechanical of a golfer on the sport’s most creative playground, and instead he has been too Koepka. Whatever secret ingredient a human needs to play major championship golf, Koepka has ordered by the case. At this point we should expect him to contend for majors even if he stops playing golf.
In the middle of it all is Tony Finau, one of the nicest people in the game, and one of the most dangerous. He will be in a rare Sunday morning threesome here with Woods and Molinari, as club officials try to finish the championship before an expected storm hits.
It is anybody’s guess who the unusual arrangement helps most. Molinari said, “I try not to be too fazed about this sort of stuff.” He tends not to be fazed by anything. Molinari is ready for this. So is Koepka. But then, so is Tiger Woods.