- The Washington Times - Friday, April 6, 2007

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Trying to make sense of a first-round Masters leader board is always a challenge.

Brett Wetterich, for instance, whose 69 tied for the lead yesterday — he makes sense. He just finished runner-up to Tiger Woods at Doral.

Tim Clark, who was among the cluster at 71 — he makes sense, too. Came in second at Augusta National a year ago.

Jeev Singh (71) — no sense. (Hasn’t cracked the top 20 on the European Tour in months.)

Rich Beem (71) — hmmm. (Beemer’s won the PGA, sure, but he missed the cut at Houston last week and hasn’t exactly distinguished himself here.)

Then there’s England’s Justin Rose. He makes a surprising amount of sense — for a player, that is, who’s still looking for his first victory in the U.S. Nearly a decade after pitching in on the last hole of the British Open to tie for fourth as a 17-year-old, Rose finally might be ready to, uh, hatch. For starters, this is the second straight time he’s shot the best first-day score in the Masters. In fact, in his last appearance at Augusta in 2004, he led after 18 and 36 holes.

But never mind that. Have you noticed what he’s done in the past seven months? In addition to winning his third professional event, the Australian Masters, he has been the outright or co-leader at the end of a round nine times on the PGA Tour. One of them was at the Disney, where he opened with a course-record 60.

“Obviously, breaking through in Australia at the end of last year was good for my confidence,” said Rose. “I’d put myself in position a lot of times and not quite finish it off, so to win there was great.

“At the Bob Hope [in January], I really felt calm and comfortable with my emotions in the last round. Although I didn’t win, I felt like I did everything I could have to win. That was a great sign for me. Then I played some great golf at the Match Play, came up against some strong players and managed to win [three] matches there. So there are a lot of things for me to draw on, a lot of positives going on right now.”

The Match Play was something of a breakthrough. Rose knocked off 2005 U.S. Open champ Michael Campbell in Round 1, Phil Mickelson in Round 2 and one of the tour’s hottest players, Charles Howell III, in Round 3. Trevor Immelman ended his run in the Elite Eight, but Rose’s ability to stand up to such competition was indeed an encouraging sign.

After all, when you’re in the hunt as often as he’s been on the PGA Tour and failed to win, folks begin to wonder whether something’s missing … nerve, self-confidence, a short game, whatever. But it might not be that at all. It might just be that Rose was 23 the first time his name appeared on a Masters leader board, and how many players that young have ever walked off with a green jacket? Answer: In the last 40 years, only one: a fellow named Woods.

Adam Scott, another talented twentysomething, addressed this subject earlier in the week. Asked whether he was starting to get to discouraged that he hadn’t won a major, he replied, “Not at all. If every other 26-year-old was out here winning majors, I’d be annoyed, but that’s not the case. You’ve got to be a little patient with this.”

Rose is right about the Hope: He did do everything but win. He led after the second round, the third, the fourth — heck, he even won the pro-am. Alas, a wind-blown 76 on Sunday left him a shot short.

Lately he’s been tending to a balky back that caused him to skip the World Golf Championship two weeks ago. (Disc trouble at 26 — only in golf.) He didn’t want to do anything that might keep him from playing in the Masters, so he stayed home, continued with his rehab and concentrated on getting ready for Augusta. Looks like it was the right move.

His experience here in 2004, painful as that third-round 81 was, has made him a better player, Rose insists. “Sometimes you learn more when situations go badly than when they go well.”

And what did lesson did Augusta impart that week? “How you’ve got to really pace yourself. And obviously the tee times are quite late [for the leaders] on the weekend, so you’ve got to find ways to occupy yourself.”

Since he doesn’t tee off until 2:15 this afternoon, he says he’ll try to dispense with the pacing and finger drumming and watch some DVDs instead — just to “reset the dial, treat [the round] as a clean slate.” He also has a larger entourage this time — family staying with him, friends in town. It should be “a lot easier just to have some fun and hang out.”

The teen prodigy is now a husband with an achin’ back. But for the second time in four Masters, he’s running with the lead pack after the first round. Will he leave them, or will they leave him? More to the point: Did he bring enough DVDs? Four days in Augusta’s glare can be an eternity.

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