SAN DIEGO – Torrey Pines’ South Course is about as welcoming to front-runners as rush hour on a Southern California freeway.
For anyone not named Tiger Woods, the pole position through three rounds is where title hopes go to die, and for a brief moment on Sunday, the Farmers Insurance Open was shaping up to be its normal pursuer’s paradise.
Through 49 holes, Justin Rose, who had been a bastion of consistency for the better part of three days, had forged a five-stroke advantage and appeared to be the exception to the rule that playing from the front of the pack was a recipe for disaster on the South Course.
But history can be an unwelcomed sign, and hanging low over Rose’s title hopes was the ever-present reminder that each of the past five winners at Torrey Pines began the final round multiples shots off the lead.
Even with a seemingly insurmountable advantage, Rose’s track record from the front left plenty of room for doubt. Of the previous 15 times he shouldered a lead or co-lead into the final turn at a PGA Tour event, Rose only converted on four of those attempts. Batting .266 doesn’t exactly inspire confidence, even if you’re the world’s top-ranked player.
“It's very difficult because we see it all the time, someone gets hot from behind without any pressure,” Adam Scott said. “It's hard to play with the lead because you can make not that bad of an error and it leads to a double bogey. And two shots is not a lot. A double bogey to a birdie on a good swing and a bad swing is three shots.”
For two hours on Sunday, that pressure was real for Rose, who led by three entering the final round.
Rose missed the fairway, airmailed the green and bogeyed the first hole to begin his day, added another at the par-4 fourth hole and appeared to be in full freefall mode when he bogeyed No. 5 from the middle of the fairway.
Jon Rahm called his come-from-behind victory in 2017 at the Farmers Insurance Open “a borderline miracle,” a nod to his closing round of 65 after starting that day three back. But when the Spaniard birdied the sixth hole Sunday to cut into Rose’s lead, the miracle appeared much more manageable.
“I scratched a line on my scorecard after six holes and said, ‘All right, we build the round from this moment on,’” Rose said.
By the time Rose made the turn, his lead had been stretched to a field goal again, and when he converted a 9-footer for par at the 15th hole he was metaphorically dormie, three up with three to play. Not even a torrid finish by Scott, who has been rejuvenated by a new putting grip and a flagstick that is quickly becoming many pros’ best friend, was enough to deny Rose his 10th PGA Tour victory.
Rose closed with a 69 to set a new 72-hole tournament scoring record and clip Scott, who birdied his last four holes, by two shots.
The Englishman dedicated his victory to his regular caddie, Mark Fulcher, who underwent heart surgery on Jan. 17 in New York City. But with apologies to the longtime looper, this victory has much more to do with Rose’s resilience.
This was a benchmark victory for many reasons. Winning for Fulcher was emotionally gratifying, but winning to quiet the predictable demons was just as relevant.
Rose was well aware of his record with the lead, if not Torrey Pines’ historically poor treatment of front-runners. But following a wholesale equipment change this year to Japan-based manufacturer Honma, which had been viewed in some quarters with skepticism, the pressure to perform was real. There’s a well-documented list of top players whose careers went the wrong way following similar equipment changes.
“I made the decision thinking it was the right decision, obviously. I already felt that Honma would make me the clubs that I wanted to play for the next four, five years,” Rose said. “Everything has worked out better than I would have hoped, for sure, the first couple weeks.”
On Sunday, Rose did what he does best: Play a utilitarian brand of golf that leans heavily on one of the most repeatable swings in the game and an aversion to the big miss. He finished the week eighth in the field in fairways hit and second in greens in regulation. Although it’s not the sexiest form of the game, that kind of simple efficiency has now made the 38-year-old the world’s undisputed best player.
Following months of playing musical chairs atop the Official World Golf Ranking with the likes of Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas, Rose has extended his lead to more than one average point thanks to a performance befitting of a world No. 1.
“He has a nasty streak in him, for sure. He’s a grinder,” said Rory McIlroy of Rose. “He’s learned the hard way, with the way he started his career. I don’t think there’s many mentally stronger people in the world of golf than Justin Rose just because of what he’s been through and coming out the other end of it, and becoming a better player and a better person probably because of it, as well.”
The major champion and Olympic gold medalist doesn’t have much left to prove in his career. He’s been a staple on the European Ryder Cup team for more than a decade and last year added the FedExCup to his trophy case. But on Sunday, with a world-class field closing in and history working against him, Rose conquered the entirely unique challenge of holding a lead.
“Definitely there were times in my career where I've had decent sized leads and you start to throw it away a little bit and you panic,” Rose said. “I just knew I couldn't do that today. I stayed calm, I stayed with it.”
Most importantly, he stayed just out of reach of the field and began a new tradition for front-runners at Torrey Pines.