justin Rose shrugged off a “pretty awful” warm-up session to charge into early contention for the Players Championship yesterday, a timely boost for his US Open title defence next month.
The world number ten said he was almost back to full health after being hampered by a shoulder injury that sidelined him for the first six weeks this year, unexpected time off he hopes will benefit him as the season unfolds.
“What I’ve lost [in time] earlier in the year will hopefully pay off in the summer. Maybe I’ll be a little fresher than some of the guys who have played a lot,” Rose told reporters after shooting a five-under-par 67 in the opening round at the TPC Sawgrass to end a hot, sunny day two strokes off the pace.
“I kept trying to tell myself that it is a long year, and you can build your year in two or three weeks, especially with the majors coming around. If you catch fire at the right point in the season, it can be still a great year.”
Rose, who landed his first major title by two shots at last year’s US Open after overhauling 54-hole leader Phil Mickelson in the final round at Merion, feels that his form has steadily improved this year.
“I’ve been swinging the club well on the range for the most part all year and just been waiting for it to turn around onto the golf course,” said the 33-year-old, who has recorded four top-10s in nine starts on the 2013-14 PGA Tour.
“Even the last few weeks, I don’t feel like I’ve had my so called ‘A’ game, but I’m beginning to figure out how to get it in the hole, score, chip and putt, grind a little bit better, stay a bit more patient.
“I’ve been playing a bit more golf to get into that rhythm. This is what I’ve been waiting for really, just to sort of be ready to go. I’m looking forward to the rest of the season.”
Not even a sub-par warm-up session could prevent Rose from surging up the leaderboard in the prestigious PGA Tour event widely regarded as the unofficial fifth major. “That’s one of those weird days in the game of golf,” grinned Rose, a five-times winner on the PGA Tour who has not triumphed on the US circuit since his Merion breakthrough 11 months ago.
“It was pretty awful on the range and I had not much feel of anything that I was doing to be honest with you. Having played quite well recently, it was a bit of an out of the blue moment.
“But I guess all [swing coach] Sean [Foley] could offer really is take a couple of deep breaths and good luck, because everything looked OK.
“I probably hit more greens today than I’ve hit all year long. It’s weird.”
Meanwhile, Lee Westwood shrugged off an unusually early start to lead the European challenge for a rare victory in the Players Championship.
Westwood hit the opening tee shot of golf’s so-called “fifth major” at 7:15am local time, but showed no ill effects to compile a flawless five-under-par 67 at Sawgrass.
That score was matched ten minutes later by Spain’s Gonzalo Fernandez-Castano and then equalled by compatriot Sergio Garcia and Rose to boost the chances of just a fourth European win in 41 attempts.
American Russell Henley had the clubhouse lead after a 65 which saw him recover a double bogey on the seventh with six birdies in a back nine of 30.
“It’s probably been about 21 years since I was the first ball in the air at a tournament,” Westwood said after his round.