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Francesco Molinari and Tiger Woods meet again, this time at the Masters

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AUGUSTA, GA - APRIL 07:  Tiger Woods and amateur Edoardo Molinari (L) of Italy with brother and caddie Francesco Molinari (C) on the fourth tee during the second round of The Masters at the Augusta National Golf Club on April 7, 2006 in Augusta, Georgia.  (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

AUGUSTA, GA - APRIL 07: Tiger Woods and amateur Edoardo Molinari (L) of Italy with brother and caddie Francesco Molinari (C) on the fourth tee during the second round of The Masters at the Augusta National Golf Club on April 7, 2006 in Augusta, Georgia. (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

    Written by Sean Martin @PGATOURSMartin

    AUGUSTA, Ga. – Francesco Molinari and Tiger Woods have met at the Masters before, but, oh, how much has changed since that fortuitous meeting more than a decade ago.

    Molinari was a looper. Woods was a legend. Perhaps you’ve seen the picture this week. It’s been popular fodder on television and social media.

    Molinari isn’t quite the Italian iteration of Francis Ouimet (though Francesco Ouimet has a ring to it). He wasn’t making a living carrying Augusta National members’ clubs. But he is poised to win a major on the course where he once repaired divots, calculated yardages and cleaned clubfaces. And, like Ouimet, he could do so by beating the biggest name in the game.

    Thirteen years ago, Francesco caddied at the Masters for his brother, Edoardo. Edoardo was the reigning U.S. Amateur champion, an honor that earned him a tee time with the defending Masters champion. That was Woods.

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    A lot has changed since then. Back then it would have seemed unfathomable that Woods was still waiting for his fifth green jacket. Molinari was already a professional golfer when he came to Augusta in 2006, but you would be forgiven for not knowing that. He was floating around the top 200 of the world ranking and had yet to win on the European Tour.

    How the tables have turned. Molinari, a steady player for most of the past decade, has turned into a world-beater, and Woods has often been his victim.

    It started last July. After Molinari blitzed the field with a Sunday 62, Woods handed Molinari his first PGA TOUR trophy at the Quicken Loans National. They would meet later that month in the final round at Carnoustie. Players used to wilt when they saw the Sunday red, but Molinari was masterful at the toughest course on The Open rota, shooting a 69 to win his first major championship. Then Woods ran into the Moliwood buzzsaw at last year’s Ryder Cup. Molinari and Tommy Fleetwood beat Woods all three times they saw him.

    Molinari will begin Sunday’s final round with a two-shot advantage over Woods and Tony Finau.

    Woods will have the home-course advantage, though. This is his turf.

    Woods’ legacy wasn’t formed at TPC Potomac at Avenel Farm. Or Le Golf National. Or even Carnoustie.

    Augusta National is a different story. This is the site of Woods’ groundbreaking win in 1997. It’s where he completed the Tiger Slam. And then went back-to-back. His chip-in on 16 in 2005 may be the most famous shot of his career.

    “He obviously loves this place, and he's playing great golf, so I'm aware that it's not going to be easy tomorrow,” Molinari said.

    Molinari, meanwhile, is a new face on a Masters leaderboard. He’s never finished better than 19th in the Masters.

    That’s a testament to the 36-year-old’s radical transformation. To keep pace with the modern game, he added 20 yards to his tee shots by changing his swing and his body. He’s also the most-improved putter on the PGA TOUR.

    While Woods is seeking his first major since 2008, Molinari is looking for his second in his last three starts. He sandwiched a T6 at the PGA Championship between his win at The Open and this masterful Masters performance. Molinari has three top-6 finishes in his last five majors. His worst finish is 25th.

    Molinari has won as many times in the past 12 months as he did in his first 12 years as a pro. His latest win came at last month’s Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard. It confirmed once again that he’s a strong closer. He’s averaged 65.8 strokes in the final round of his last four wins, including a 64 at Bay Hill and 62 at the Quicken Loans.

    No one has compiled a cleaner card at Augusta National. He’s made just one bogey through 54 holes.

    While Molinari’s game has reached new levels, Woods is seeking to recapture the old magic. Even this week’s style is a throwback. The red mock turtleneck that he’s scheduled to wear is reminiscent of his attire from his last Masters victory.

    His Sunday red may be covered by rain gear, though. An ominous forecast forced Masters officials to move up Sunday’s starting times. Players will be grouped in threesomes, as well. The final group of Molinari, Woods and Finau is scheduled to tee off at 9:20 a.m. That’s an unheard of hour for the Masters leaders to tee off.

    “The reward is for playing hard and doing all the things correctly you get a nice little sleep in come Sunday, but that's not going to be the case,” Woods said. “We've got to get up early and get after it.”

    Woods will need to do something unprecedented to win another green jacket. He was the 54-hole leader in his four previous victories at Augusta National. He isn’t leading, but his 54-hole total of 11-under 205 (70-68-67) is his lowest score over the first three rounds since 2005. He is undefeated at Augusta National when shooting 205 or lower over the first 54 holes.

    “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.

    This is his 22nd Masters. He’s played Augusta National in myriad conditions. That could come in handy Sunday. Though the worst weather is forecast for the afternoon, there’s a chance of rain throughout the day. Winds of 15 mph are supposed to blow, as well, as the front moves in. That’s enough to cause problems at Augusta National, where precise iron play is rewarded exponentially by the swales and bowls that surround the traditional Sunday hole locations.

    A rain-soaked Augusta National will provide a much different examination than the concrete-firm fairways of Carnoustie. That’s why Molinari knows he can’t rest on last year’s successes.

    “Every tournament is different,” Molinari said, “and every time is a different story.”

    The latest chapter looks like it will be a good one.

    Sean Martin manages PGATOUR.COM’s staff of writers as the Lead, Editorial. He covered all levels of competitive golf at Golfweek Magazine for seven years, including tournaments on four continents, before coming to the PGA TOUR in 2013. Follow Sean Martin on Twitter.

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