Masterful Francesco Molinari moves into contention at Augusta

Francesco Molinari plays from a bunker on the second hole on his way to a five-under-par round of 67 in the second round of the Masters. Picture: Matt Slocum/AP
Francesco Molinari plays from a bunker on the second hole on his way to a five-under-par round of 67 in the second round of the Masters. Picture: Matt Slocum/AP
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A year ago, Francesco Molinari’s presence on those giant Masters leaderboards would barely have been recognised by the majority of fans at Augusta National.

They all know about him now, though. Winning the Open Championship at Carnoustie last summer then becoming a history-maker by claiming five points out of five in the Ryder Cup in France saw to that.

Alongside him on that mark are Australian pair Adam Scott, the 2013 winner here, and Jason Day, who has been Lazarus-like since requiring on-course treatment for a back problem early in the opening round, as well as Brooks Koepka and Louis Oosthuizen.

The quintet have four-time winner Tiger Woods and Dustin Johnson, the world No 2, breathing down their necks heading into the weekend. They are on six-under alongside Xander Schauffele, who carded a best-of-the-day 65, and South African Justin Harding.

Also in the mix is Ian Poulter, who sits on five-under, a shot ahead of Phil Mickelson, who would become the oldest-ever major winner at 48 if he can claim a fourth Green Jacket.

On a day that was decidely dreich as the opening groups headed out, Molinari sparked his move by spinning a wedge to three feet at the fourth.

Illustrating how much his short game has improved over the past year or so, the 36-year-old then got up and down from 24 yards after coming up just short of the green at the long eighth.

He then made the most of a stroke of fortune as his approach at the ninth stayed up on the top shelf at the back of the green, knocking in a 15-footer for birdie, before rounding off the sort of polished performance that has become his trademark - this one was a bogey-free effort - with a birdie-2 at the 12th from 25 feet.

“I’m really happy the way I played and the way we managed the strategy with my caddie,” said Molinari, who recorded his best finish in this event when tying for 20th 12 months ago but has become a golfing God since then.

“I feel a massive difference when I’m on the greens or around the greens compared to my previous (seven) times here.”

Prior to those playing appearances, he caddied for his older brother, Edoardo, when he teed up in 2006 as the US Amateur champion and was paired with Tiger Woods in the opening two rounds.

“Miles away,” replied Molinari, who had just started out on the European Tour at the time, to being asked if he felt close to playing here himself back then.

“It was a great motivation to see how good the guys were and, at the same time, how much I needed to improve to hopefully one day get here.

“But, at the time, the goal was to maybe only be once in my career at Augusta. That would have been an achievement for me.”

Day, who tied for second here on his debut in 2011 then finished third two years later, hurt his back as he bent down to give his daughter a hug before heading out in the first round. “Not the greatest start,” admitted the 31-year-old.

But, helped by receiving on-course treatment from his personal chiropractor, he has managed to manouevre himself into contention for a second major to add to the 2015 US PGA Championship. “Things have started to loosen up now, which is great” he added.

Koepka, who has won three of the last six majors he’s teed up in, had been the only player in the 87-man field to be bogey-free in the opening circuit. In contrast, his second round was an up-and-down affair, including a birdie-double bogey-birdie start.

“It was a lot different today,” admitted the 2013 Scottish Challenge winner afterwards. “I did not strike the ball as well while I didn’t make many putts, struggling with the left-to-right ones.”

Rounds of 68 and 70 have left Johnson lurking ominously. “I’m very satisfied,” said the 2016 US Open champion of his position on the leaderboard, which saw Bryson DeChambeau drop from joint-top with Koepka on seven-under at the start of the day to three-under following a 75.

Poulter’s best finish here is tied for sixth in 2015. But he’s off to his best start since 2010 after rounds of 68-71.

Zach Johnson, one of his playing partners, accidentally hit his ball taking a practice swing on the 13th but got to take it again as there was no intent on the first occasion. “I’ve done it. We’ve all done it,” said Poulter of that funny incident.

Bernhard Langer, a two-time winner, is through to the weekend at the age of 61. Three birdies in the final five holes left him on one-under at the halfway stage.

It’s the fifth time in the last seven years that the machine-like German has made the cut here. “I’m 40 yards behind everybody, maybe 50,” he said. “If you hit it short, you better hit it straight, right? Short and crooked would be pretty bad.”

Jordan Spieth, a younger Masters specialist, is also still standing as he bounced back from an opening 75 - he was out in 40 - with a gutsy 68.

The cut fell at three-over, meaning early exits for world No 1 Justin Rose, 2017 winner Sergio Garcia and Sandy Lyle.

“The goal today was to make the cut,” said Rose after falling a shot shy along with both Garcia and Lyle. I’ve been playing terribly this week, but there’s always pride in trying to make it.

“I’ve never missed a cut here. I had a chance there with the ten- shot rule, but missed a four-footer at the last, which just sums it up.”

Four amateurs, led by Norwegian Viktor Hovland, made the cut - the most since 1991.