How Justin Rose avoided hitting the panic button, kept his Masters lead

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AUGUSTA, Ga. – Justin Rose opted to skip the WGC-Dell Match Play a couple of weeks ago in order to be fresh for the Masters.

He still got his match-play fix on Friday at Augusta National.

After seeing his four-shot lead at the end of Day 1 shrink quickly during a 3-over start through seven holes, Rose blocked out the list of names closing the gap and focused solely on beating the golf course.

“The finger was heading toward the panic button a little bit,” Rose said. “I had a little talk with myself on 8 and said, You’re still leading the Masters, and I just changed my mindset a little bit and started to play match play against the golf course. I scratched a line on my scorecard and told myself I was 3 down and could I go ahead and beat the golf course from that point on.”

Rose responded with three birdies on the back nine, and he had an 18-foot birdie putt on the par-4 18th hole to win his “match.” The putt slid by left, Rose settled for an even-par 72 that kept him in the lead at 7 under.

“An honorable draw,” he said.

Rose, who hadn’t played a tournament since withdrawing from the Arnold Palmer Invitational after 40 holes with a back injury, admittedly entered the year’s first major far from sharp, though that didn’t keep him from firing a sensational 65 in the opening round to build a sizeable advantage. Early on Friday, it looked as if Rose’s time atop the leaderboard would be short-lived, as he hit his tee shot at No. 1 into the right trees and had to chip out sideways.

He salvaged a good bogey on the opening hole, but after a birdie at the par-5 second, Rose hit a couple of unfortunate lag putts that results in bogeys on Augusta National’s front-nine par-3s. He left a 50-footer for birdie on No. 4 on the fairway cut, as his ball only traveled some 20 feet and didn’t quite catch the putting surface to funnel down toward the cup. At the sixth, he couldn’t get it onto the top shelf form 67 feet, and his ball rolled back down to about 60 feet.

He also found a fairway bunker off the tee at the par-4 seventh and could only lay up to about 110 yards.

“I think it was just a classic day at Augusta National when you’re just slightly off,” Rose said. “You can be a foot or two out on certain occasions and you end up struggling. I think maybe off the back of yesterday, yeah, you know, it starts to feel pretty different pretty quickly.”

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But Rose didn’t give up and kept things “ticking forward.” How could he not? Rose, who owns two runner-up finishes on this course, including a playoff loss to Sergio Garcia in 2017, said this special place inspires him.

“It’s a golf course I know how to play better than any other,” he said. “For me to come into any major championship without playing for a month [and play well], it would be this one.”

Now, how does he keep the momentum going? By not watching TV. Rose typically likes tuning into the coverage when he’s not in contention. But when he is, like he is this week, he’d rather not pay attention, especially since the topic surrounding him will likely be the fact that only one of the past 23 outright first-round leaders at the Masters has gone on to win.

“Not listening to you guys, that’s exactly how I block it out,” he said.

History does get better, though: 31 of the previous 84 champions had at least a share of the 36-hole lead.