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Expect Sunday shootout among last 2 groups at Augusta

AUGUSTA, Ga. – One of golf’s favorite cliches is that the Masters doesn’t start until the back nine on Sunday. For the 49 challengers playing ahead of the final two pairings today, a low score on the front nine will be vital. Otherwise for them, the back nine won’t matter.

Co-leaders Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia (6-under 210), plus Rickie Fowler (5 under) and Jordan Spieth (4 under) – all among the top 14 in the world – are in the final two groups this afternoon at Augusta National Golf Club. The winner of the 81st Masters likely will come from those two pairings – Fowler and Spieth at 2:35 p.m. EDT and Rose and Garcia at 2:45 – for two reasons:

* The weather forecast – sunny and high 70s, with light wind and no chance of rain – should be perfect for scoring, thwarting the longshots’ chances to make up ground.

* The frontrunners are among the best in the game, with a combined 29 PGA Tour victories.

“I think the pedigree in front of me is good,” said Adam Scott, the 2013 Masters champion who is seventh at 3-under 213, three strokes behind Rose and Garcia. “And I know with conditions like this, three or four of the guys are going to have good scores tomorrow. It's going to be hard for them to go out and shoot 66, 65. If they do, they deserve to win because they're also playing with the lead.”

If Scott is right, the top of the leaderboard is the best place to look for the 2017 champion.

Rose and Spieth are the only players among the frontrunners with major victories: Rose in the 2013 U.S. Open and Spieth in the 2015 Masters and U.S. Open.

“I felt like after the first couple of rounds, I could have shot significantly lower than my score was, but I've been very patient with that,” Rose said after posting Saturday’s low round, a 5-under 67. “I've kind of known that I've been playing well and been thinking well and making good decisions. And then today I began to feel very comfortable on the greens. Just things began to click, and I had my run.”

Rose expects somebody from the final two pairings to be wearing the green jacket.

“Jordan obviously has a special relationship with the Masters,” Rose said. “He's going to feel great about his chances. Rickie is a very confident player. He's going to be searching for his first major championship. He's going to be all up for it. Sergio is going to have a great opportunity.”

Garcia, 37, a pro since age 19, is playing in his 74th major championship. His closest brush with winning one of golf’s four biggest titles came in the 2007 British Open, when he led for the first three rounds and lost a four-hole aggregate playoff to Padraig Harrington at Carnoustie. Garcia

struggled to determine whether he had the fortitude to win at golf’s highest level.

This week, Garcia has shown the game and temperament to slip on the green jacket today.

“You do have to calm yourself down, not get ahead of yourself,” Garcia said. “Take some nice, deep breaths. And then, you know, just try to cope with whatever comes your way the best way possible. At the end of the day, that's really the only thing you can do.”

Spieth came to this year’s Masters intent on avenging last year’s blown lead, when he hit two balls into Rae’s Creek at No. 12 and made quadruple bogey-7.

The 12th hole has not been his problem this week. The par-5 15th dinged Spieth with a quadruple bogey-9 as he opened with 3-over 75Thursday and trailed first-round leader Charley Hoffman by 10 strokes. Spieth took advantage of two solid rounds, 69-68, and stands tied for fourth at 4-under 212, two strokes behind.

As Scott said, Spieth has a special relationship with the Masters, borne out by his win in 2015 and two runners-up finishes in three starts at Augusta National.

“Tomorrow might free me up a bit, being behind,” said Spieth, who has gone 2-1-2 in three Masters appearances. “I plan to play aggressive because at this point, it's win or go home. So, you pull off the shots and you make the putts, then you know, I want to give myself a chance for that to be enough.  And if I don't, then so be it. Finishing fifth versus 10th doesn't mean much to me.”

Fowler, at 28, is in his prime as a golfer but has mixed success in the majors. In 2014, he finished fifth or better in all four majors, but he owns only two other top 10s in 28 majors. Including a T-5 in the ’14 Masters, he has made he has five cuts in six starts at Augusta. Last year, he opened with 80 and missed qualifying for weekend play.

Yet, Fowler has shown flashes of brilliance, including his 2015 victory at The Players Championship, his biggest title among four Tour triumphs.

“I've continued to feel more and more comfortable here at Augusta, and I feel like that really started maybe three or four years ago,” he said. “But this is definitely a different position now.”

Cautiously aggressive play should be rewarded today. The course should provide scoring opportunities. For those challengers trying to make up ground ahead of the last two twosomes, risky play could spell defeat at Augusta National.

That’s why the winner likely will be Rose, Garcia, Spieth or Fowler.

Alex Miceli is the founder and publisher of Morning Read. Email: alex@morningread.com; Twitter: @AlexMiceli