Webb Simpson is playing his eighth Masters Tournament. On Sunday the Charlotte resident will be competing for the green jacket for the first time and chasing the likes of Francesco Molinari and Tiger Woods.
With a career-best round of 64 at Augusta National on Saturday, Simpson vaulted from his familiar place in the middle of the pack to the top of the leaderboard at 9-under par before Molinari took over the lead by the end of the day. Simpson will tee off in the penultimate threesome when the final round tees off early Sunday morning to try to beat expected storms.
“It feels good, I’ve never had a chance here and never taken it deep here,” Simpson said. “Last year I had it going the last round. It’s always nice to have a chance at any tournament, but it’s pretty special here.”
Molinari, the reigning British Open champion, hasn’t made any bogeys in his last 43 holes and only one all week to reach 13-under and take a two-shot lead over Woods and Tony Finau. Brooks Koepka is alone in fourth at 10-under with Simpson tied for fifth with Ian Poulter.
With strong storms expected late on Sunday, players will be sent out in threesomes off both sides starting at 7:30 a.m. on Sunday morning. The leaders will go off the first tee at 9:20 a.m. with a target of finishing before 2:30 p.m. CBS will broadcast the final round live.
“This will be different,” said Woods after his 67 got him into the final group at a major for the first time since the 2009 PGA Championship when he lost to Y.E. Yang. “Normally we get a sleep in on Sunday going late, but we’ll get an early wake-up call.”
The last time the Masters sent players off both the first and 10th tee was in the early rounds in 2005 when Jack Nicklaus played in his final Masters. That also happened to be the last time Woods won a green jacket.
“It doesn’t feel like Augusta National, but I remember Jack finishing on 9 so I guess the precedent has already been set,” Woods said.
Woods will be chasing Molinari, whose first experience at the Masters came in 2006 caddying for his brother, Edoardo, when the reigning U.S. Amateur champion played the first two rounds with defending Masters champion Woods. On the first tee, Edoardo introduced his brother to Woods, saying “he’s a good golfer, too.”
On a leaderboard already slammed with fellow major champions, Simpson, the 2012 U.S. Open winner from Wake Forest, fits right in.
Saturday, he flirted with matching the course record 63 if not for a “sloppy” bogey on the par-3 sixth hole. Simpson played the last 12 holes in 8-under including four consecutive birdies from 7-10 and an eagle on 13. He shot one of three 64s on Saturday along with Finau and Patrick Cantlay.
“I just kind of had a talk with myself going back to 7 tee thinking about all my bad shots this week have been just some poor thinking and not being really committed to what I decided to do,” Simpson said. “And I just said, ‘Hey, if you stay fully committed the rest of the day, you’re swinging great, you’re putting well, you’re going to make birdies.’ And that’s what I did.”
Simpson’s Masters record was nothing to shout about, never finishing better than 20th and missing three cuts in seven starts. His frustration peaked last year when he made the cut at 4-over and decided what he was doing wasn’t working.
“Pretty frustrated because I had never played well here,” he said on the 2018 tournament. “Just decided that the weekend, no matter what, I was going to miss it on the correct side, the safe side, because most every hole out here affords you that opportunity to miss it on the safe side. I didn’t really care what I shot on the weekend, I was going to miss it on safe side. And I did that and I shot 2‑under
Saturday and 5‑under Sunday.”
With that lesson learned, he returned embracing that mindset. Being 1-under after two rounds didn’t deter him.
“He played the best golf the first two days tee to green I think I’ve ever seen him play and didn’t make anything,” said his longtime caddie, Paul Tesori.
The day started with an unprecedented five major winners tied for the lead with Woods and Dustin Johnson just one behind. Among those seven major-winning heavyweights, only Molinari, Woods and Koepka broke 70 to get a little separation on their peers while Finau and Simpson made the biggest moves.
There are still 10 major winners among the top 14 within seven shots of the lead. The Masters winner has started among the top five on Sunday every year since 1995.
“It’s gonna be tough conditions tomorrow and I’m going to have to go out and shoot a really special number,” said Dustin Johnson, who sits five shots back at 8-under after a 70 on Saturday.
“I’ve got to shoot 7‑, 8‑, 9‑under par, but I love that I even have that chance,” said three-time Masters winner Phil Mickelson, who is tied for 15th at 6-under. “The fact that we’re going early I think it takes away any adverse effect that the weather might bring in, so I think they put the integrity of the competition first as opposed to having us tee off right in the worst of the weather and having it carry over.”