AUGUSTA—Forget the cliché. This Masters Tournament started on the back nine on Saturday, not Sunday.
A lot can happen in 18 holes at Augusta National on Sunday, and it will. But the back nine on Saturday set the stage as the stately old Masters morphed into a U.S. Open survival test with firm greens and swirling winds. It looked like double bogeys were on sale half off and Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy, among many, went shopping.
The back nine was where Spieth seemingly sealed back-to-back Masters victories when he bounced back from an inexcusable double bogey from the 11th fairway with three birdies on the next four holes. The man who chased last year's Grand Slam had a four-shot lead with two holes to play. Game over? Not quite.
The back nine was also where the Spieth let the field back into the tournament by finishing with a bogey and an inexcusable double bogey at the 18th. Now he's got a skinny one-shot lead and confidence that's been run through a shredder. Game on, gents.
The back nine was where Rory McIlroy joined Waldo for a snipe hunt. Where's Rory? Who knows? He even disappeared from the CBS telecast, which is hard to do when you're a former No. 1 in the world, you're ratings gold and you're in the final twosome with Spieth. No birdies and double hockey sticks (77) will get you off camera in a hurry. At Augusta, there were no roars for Rors, just groans.
The mix? Call it the mixup. A lot of players can win this thing now. Here's my rundown, in order of preference:
Jordan Spieth: He's up by one, his swing seems held together with baling wire and twine, but his putter has saved him. Tiger Woods in his prime would be kicking his butt this week but that's not fair, since that Tiger would kick anyone's butt. If you had to bet your house, you'd have to plunk it down on Spieth. The Masters is ultimately a test of nerves and a putting contest. Spieth is the best putter, hands down. But the way he's playing the closing holes—man, he better have a three-shot lead when he gets there. If he shoots another 74 or 73 like he did the last two rounds, he'll be hanging a green jacket on someone else.
Jason Day: You can blame McIlroy for us not getting all three of the so-called Big Three in the last two groups, but that last double greatly enhanced Day's chances. He can start out birdie-eagle and tie for the lead on Sunday before Spieth even gets off the first tee. My Wild Card Factor: After two days of dismal bogey golf and big numbers, I expect the Masters poobahs to soften the greens and stick the pins in funnels so Sunday's prime-time show has lots of birdies and eagles and cheers. That means a bomber like Day (or McIlroy, who is five back) might take a run at 64 or 63 or…history. Remember, Anthony Kim racked up 11 birdies on this course once and you barely remember who he is. If not Spieth, it's Day.
Dustin Johnson: He hasn't shown he can really handle the greens or the short-game shots around them but, hey, he just might make three eagles and knock in some 20-footers and post 63 before he realizes he just won a Masters. I'm going to keep saying that until I believe it…but if he's got a four-footer for the win, I don't know.
Bernhard Langer: Give us another 30-mph windstorm, and I believe Langer could out-tough everyone for a third Masters. Give us a day with little wind and birdies galore, as we're expecting, and I think he gets steamrolled by the big hitters. But I'd love to see him play the back nine with a chance.
Smylie Kaufman: New guys aren't supposed to win the Masters. They've never seen pressure like the back nine on Sunday. Never. And the TV cameras will be all over the last group like flies on peach cobbler. But his third-round 69 was stronger than dirt. Reminder: Every great player has to get his first major championship somewhere.
Hideki Matsuyama: This youngster from Japan might have the best chance to expand the so-called Big Three into the Fab Four. He's got the whole game—length, iron play, putting. But did you watch him on those last four holes once he got to three under par Saturday? That putter got wobbly. I think he's going to win a major, just not this one.
Danny Willett: American fans barely know this Englishman. He's tough, he's going to be a Ryder Cup assassin for Europe and he can make putts. I am not ruling him out.
Rory McIlroy: The mental error when Rory hooked an iron shot from the pine straw and rolled it into the pond at No. 11 was the kind of curious blunder he's been making for a year. His head just isn't on golf; it couldn't be.
Brandt Snedeker: He's got the putter to shoot a low score, and he's put up some good numbers here in the past. A long shot, although he's only four back.
Lee Westwood: Moving to Florida didn't work. Maybe moving back to England is what got him back in form. He looks more confident than he has in a long time. He is the longest of the long shots.
All right, it may eventually come down to the back nine on Sunday. But that show will have to work hard to beat the one we saw on the back nine on Saturday.