The front nine was the place to make a move Saturday at Augusta National Golf Club.
The final-nine theatrics from Jordan Spieth, Justin Rose and Phil Mickelson provided a nice finish for television viewers around the country, but eight of the top 11 on the leaderboard played the opening nine under par. Only five of the top 11 broke par coming in.
As a general rule, most believe the front nine is tougher, but that is not always the case.
Mickelson, Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods each toured the front nine in 4-under-par 32, setting off a series of roars through the pines, but they couldn’t maintain the pace on the back side.
“Yeah, I got off to a good start. Sort of the way I wanted to play the front nine,” said McIlroy, who eagled No. 2 and made birdies at Nos. 8 and 9. “I had not really played the front nine too well the last couple days, so to play them under par is nice.”
McIlroy picked up birdies on the par-5s coming in but gave them back with bogeys on Nos. 16 and 18.
“I felt like the other holes on the back nine were playing pretty tough with the pin positions and a bit of a swirling wind,” he said.
Mickelson and Woods couldn’t sustain their hot starts, either. Both reeled off birdies at Nos. 2, 3 and 4, and Mickelson added one at No. 9 while Woods birdied No. 8.
Mickelson could gain only one stroke against par coming in, and Woods played his final nine in even par.
While most believe the adage that the Masters doesn’t begin until the back nine on Sunday, that doesn’t always hold true.
A year ago, Bubba Watson, Jonas Blixt and Spieth delivered the excitement on the first nine holes. The top three finishers combined for nine birdies and five bogeys, and Spieth went from two shots up to two shots down on Nos. 8 and 9.
The final nine was a snoozefest as the three produced just two birdies and two bogeys, and Watson waltzed to a three-shot victory.
But the front nine sets up much of the drama seen on the back, say many players.
“I just think when you throw in 4, 5, 6, 7 and 9, there’s just harder holes on the front,” 2007 winner Zach Johnson said. “(Nos.) 10 and 11 are the two you really have to get through on the back.”
With water hazards on five of the final nine holes, however, the incoming nine has historically played about a quarter of a stroke higher than the front.
Through three rounds this year, there has been very little difference. Even with the leaderboards bleeding red all three tournament days, the average for the front is 36.39 and the average for the second is 36.5.
Rose, who is four shots behind Spieth, made up the most ground on the second nine Saturday. He birdied five of the final six holes to card 31 and be the exception.
One of the early finishers, Chris Kirk, found the front nine harder Saturday. The former Georgia star shot 40 going out but rallied for 32.
“The front nine is definitely more difficult,” he said. “There’s a lot fewer birdie chances. The back nine is so much risk-reward you can shoot a low number or high number, either or, but the front nine is just right there in front of you. It’s good long par-4s and it’s really difficult.”
Staff writer David Lee contributed to this article.