AUGUSTA, Ga. — There was little reason to think Justin Rose would be leading the Masters by four shots, shooting a blistering 7-under 65 in Thursday’s first round at Augusta National.
Rose himself wouldn’t have thought that to be realistic.
“I didn’t know where my game was coming into this week,’’ Rose said.
Why would he? Rose hasn’t played a full tournament since the WGC-Workday in late February. He withdrew from the Arnold Palmer Invitational after two rounds the following week with a back ailment and hasn’t played since.
In fact, since the last Masters, in November, Rose had played only three PGA Tour events before this week, a missed cut at the RSM, a tie for 54th at the WGC-Workday and the withdrawal at the Arnold Palmer.
He reunited with his swing coach, Sean Foley, with whom he’d parted ways last year.
Those are a lot of moving parts for a player who — on a day the field struggled, firing a composite 220-over, compared with a composite 54-under in November’s first round — played the final 10 holes of his round Thursday in 9-under.
“I’ve played this course many, many times, my 15th Masters, and my best to date is 67,’’ Rose said. “I felt like the conditions today were not the day to go hit them and have your personal best out there. It was pretty windy and the greens are incredibly firm and fast. I didn’t feel like today was the day for a 65, if I’m honest.’’
Rose said Foley told him entering this week: “I don’t know if you’re close, I just know you’re better.’’
Those words proved to be prescient.
Rose was 2-over through seven holes and, by his own admission, didn’t feel comfortable.
Then he eagled the par-5 eighth hole to get back to level par and went on that electric tear that left him four shots clear of Hideki Matsuyama and Brian Harman.
Patrick Reed, Will Zalatoris, Webb Simpson and Christian Bezuidenhuit are another shot back, each shooting 2-under 70.
“I kind of knew 2-over through 7 is not the end of the world, but also knew you’re going in the wrong direction,’’ Rose said. “You can’t win the golf tournament today. Even with a 65 you can’t win it today. You can only probably lose it today.
“I didn’t hit the panic button, but I reset just prior to that and thought if I can get myself back around even par, you know, that would be a good day’s work. So obviously the eagle, boom, straight back in there. Then I just got on a great run and was just trying to stay out of my own way and just try to get it to the clubhouse and keep doing what I was doing.’’
He conceded he was “very anxious for the gun to go off’’ Thursday.
He showed no nerves shooting 30 on the back nine, though.
Now what? It’s traditionally difficult in golf to put back-to-back low rounds together.
“That’s going to be the trick the rest of the week,’’ Rose said. “Hopefully, you can just run off instinct a little bit. I’ve competed in these big tournaments [majors] quite a few times, and I’ve got one of them to my name [the 2013 U.S. open], but we’re looking for more.
“I’ve got to keep the expectations relatively low even in this situation is not a bad thing for me for the remainder of the week and just keep it one shot at a time, keep committing on this golf course. You can never get ahead of yourself. We’ve seen it many times around here. It’s all about commitment, and I think it’s about enjoying it.’’
Evidence that Rose was playing a different golf course than the rest of the field was the fact that so many of the game’s biggest stars struggled in tricky conditions, with the greens speedy and the winds picking up.
Defending champion Dustin Johnson, who won in November by shooting a record 20-under par, shot 74. Rory McIlroy, trying to complete the career Grand Slam with a Masters win, shot 76 and hit his father in the leg with an errant approach shot. Bryson DeChambeau, with all of his firepower and length, also shot 76 and had only one birdie on his card.
So, it was hard out there for just about everyone except Rose, who’s seeking his first green jacket. Rose finished a disappointing second to Sergio Garcia in 2017, one of two runner-up finishes he has at Augusta.
“I haven’t gotten my arm in the jacket yet,’’ Rose said. “But I’ve gotten close enough to know what it looks like.’’