Justin Rose insists that winning his third PGA Tour event inside 10 months is only secondary in importance to his bid to prepare perfectly for a run at Masters glory next month.
The 30-year old Englishman, who began the day just two strokes behind overnight leaders Garret Willis and Chris Couch, birdied the last to card immaculate six under par 65 and lead the Transitions Championship by a stroke from Zimbabwe’s Brendon de Jonge (66) and 25-year old American Webb Simpson (67) on 13 under par.
It was Rose’s lowest PGA Tour round since he opened with a 65 in the Sony Open in Hawaii two months ago and while it puts him position to add to last summer’s brace of US Tour wins in the Memorial Tournament and the AT&T National, he’s more concerned about getting to Augusta National in the perfect frame of mind.
“I see the year as being so early,” Rose said, shrugging off suggestions that just one top-10 so far this season is an indication that he’s struggling. “Last year my season didn’t start warming up until [I won] the Memorial [in June] and it ended up being a great year.
“There is so much golf to play but you have got to be really patient. I knew my game was in great shape and if you choose to get frustrated by results, especially this early in the season, it becomes a long year.
“But I have been doing all the right things and it is nice to see it pay off this week. But even tomorrow is not the most important day. I am just trying to run myself into Augusta and that has been the goal for these two weeks.
“It is easier to take your mind off that now that you are in contention this week but I am trying to get my game and my mind in a really good spot heading into the Masters.”
World number 31 Rose had planned to skip this week’s event but when a bout of ‘flu forced him to miss the Honda Classic two weeks ago, he happily added Tampa to his schedule.
A big fan of one of the Copperhead course in Tampa, which is renowned as a shotmaker’s track, Rose got off to the ideal start when he got up and down from greenside sand for a birdie the par-five first and then reeled off four birdies in a row from the fourth to turn in 31 and claim the lead.
After holing an eight footer at the fourth, he knocked in a six footer at the 605-yard fifth, where he sensibly laid up 92 yards from the pin.
At the 465 yard sixth he followed a perfect drive with a 165 yard gem to less than three feet before making it four birdies in a row at the seventh, where he followed another stunning drive with a 148-yard approach that finished less than eight feet from the hole.
He couldn’t quite keep the fireworks going on the back nine but while he missed several good chances inside 15 feet, he stayed patient and made amends at the 18th when he hit a 140-yard approach to six feet and calmly rolled home the putt.
“That’s where I had to stay patient,” Rose said of his quiet back nine. “I knew I was doing a lot of good things and hit a couple of good putts in the middle of the round that didn’t go and a couple of weak ones.
“Standing over that six footer on the last, I knew it was going to be a nice way to end the day.”
American rookie Scott Stallings holed a six-iron for an ace 214-yard eighth en route to a five under par 66 that left him tied for fourth with big-hitter Gary Woodland (67), just two shots behind Rose on 11 under.
Spaniard Sergio Garcia, tied for third at halfway, slipped six shots off the pace after a one over 72. But Rose will be looking over his shoulder for young gun Nick Watney, whose 65 left him just three strokes adrift in a four-way tie for sixth with Brandt Snedeker and the overnight leaders Couch and Willis on 10 under par.
Less than a week after he birdied the final hole at TPC Doral’s Blue Monster to win the WGC-Cadillac Championship by two strokes, 29-year old Watney is trying to become the first player to win in back-to-back weeks on the PGA Tour since Tiger Woods pulled off the feat with wins in the Buick Open and the Bridgestone Invitational in Augusta 2009.