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Spieth starts Masters Sunday on top ... again

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AUGUSTA, Ga. – When Jordan Spieth set out on Sunday 12 months ago at Augusta National, there were 11 players within four strokes of the lead. When the final turn begins this year at the Masters, only one player will be within four, and he’s not named Bubba.

Playing the role of Bubba Watson this year will be Justin Rose, who carded a quintessential closing nine to turn a boat race into . . . well, something that at least resembles a race.

Whether Rose will enjoy a similar Sunday to Watson, who closed with a 69 last year to out duel Spieth for the coveted green jacket, will depend entirely on young Spieth.

On Saturday, the 21-year-old was not as efficient as he’d been for the first two days – making his first bogey in 24 holes at No. 4 on Day 3 and opening the door by making a mess of the 17th hole – but he grinded his way to a 2-under 70 for a lead that is nonetheless commanding.

“Two under [par] I thought would be a good score,” said Spieth, who made double bogey at the penultimate hole after missing the fairway left, the green right and a 3-footer.

“Obviously being 4 under at one point in the round and closing it out at 2 under is disappointing. You would have liked to have finished the round a little bit better, but it also could have been worse.”

While the conversation eventually drifted to last year’s final round, when Spieth closed with an even-par 72 to tie for second place, this time feels different, and it’s not just that four-stroke cushion that gives Sunday a different vibe.

For three relatively flawless days, this is after all Augusta National, Spieth weathered his early miscues at Nos. 4 and 7 with more clutch putting, holing birdie putts of 10 feet (No. 12), 15 feet (No. 13), 2 feet (No. 15) and 14 feet (No. 16).

If not for Rose’s late inning heroics – he birdied Nos. 13-16 and holed a 20-footer for birdie at the last to secure a spot in Sunday’s final pairing – Spieth’s advantage would have been essentially insurmountable.

Round 4 pairings, tee times

“You want to be in the last group. You want to be seeing what you're up against; you want to feel the atmosphere,” said Rose, who shot a third-round 67 and is at 12 under. “You want to get a look at how the guys play next to you, especially when you get to [Nos.] 12, 13, 14, 15 on the back nine.”

There was a time just past noon when the Jordan Spieth Invitational began to look more like the Masters, with familiar names like Tiger, Rory, Phil and Dustin closing the gap, but if you walked to the kitchen to make a pimento cheese sandwich, you probably missed it.

McIlroy, vying to complete the career Grand Slam with a victory this week, got off to a solid start with an opening nine of 32, eight strokes better than his Day 2 tour of the outward loop, and moved to within six strokes of the lead with a birdie at the 15th hole. But the world No. 1 struggled with two late bogeys and is among a group that includes Woods at 6 under.

“I'm going to need something basically around 61, 62 to have a real chance,” McIlroy said. “I'm not sure that's going to happen but we'll see.”

Mickelson was only slightly more optimistic about his chances following an inspired 67 that was his lowest card at the former fruit nursery since Round 3 in 2012.

“I think he's playing very good golf and I think he'll have a good round tomorrow,” Mickelson said of Spieth. “If he were to come out on top, it would be great to have him in the Champions Dinner every year.”

Golf eschews the early coronation – see McIlroy, Rory (2011) and Norman, Greg (1996) – but those meltdowns took rounds of 80 and 78, respectively, which are numbers Spieth doesn’t appear familiar with.

“I think the good thing for him is he's already experienced it once. He's played in the final group at the Masters before. It didn't quite happen for him last year, but I think he'll have learned from that experience,” said McIlroy, who led by four shots through 54 holes in ’11. “I think all that put together, he'll definitely handle it a lot better than I did.”

Perhaps, but then again, names like Mickelson, Johnson, McIlroy and Woods have a tendency of making pillows a little more lumpy.

It’s tough to snooze when you’ve got a combined six majors and three greens jackets in pursuit in the day’s last two groups. It’s not the quantity of Spieth’s lead, so much as it is the quality of those arrayed behind him that may make Sunday something less than a forgone conclusion.

You know the deal, objects in the rearview mirror appearing closer and all. It’s a reality Spieth seems to have already embraced.

“There's going to be roars. Phil is going to have a lot of roars in front. Obviously a few groups up I think is Tiger and Rory,” said Spieth, who will head out in the day’s final pairing for the fourth consecutive Sunday. “But especially in the group in front of us, everyone loves Phil. Why wouldn't you love Phil? And he's going to make some noise and he's going to make a run.”

On Saturday at the 11th hole, Spieth’s caddie Michael Greller urged his man to “see a small target” as he prepared his approach, a swing cue from coach Cameron McCormick.

On Sunday, there will be no escaping either the big target on his back or the big expectations he’ll start the day with.