He’s playing his first PGA Tour event of 2019 with new clubs he’s never tested in competition, a replacement caddie lugging them around, on courses he’s not familiar with and coming off a three-week golf-free break that included extended trips to Finland and his homeland England.
Yep, Justin Rose is just where he wants to be.
Rose begins the year as the No. 1 player in the world golf rankings and as the reigning FedEx Cup champion. On the heels of his best season in a professional career that began in 1998, he’ll begin play Thursday in the Desert Classic in La Quinta for the first time since 2010.
“I’m looking forward to this week and really getting out there,” Rose said Wednesday. “The swing feels good.”
The swing, augmented by an improved putting stroke refined after months of diligent work, was more than good last season. Rose won twice on tour, averaged $451,704 in winnings per tournament — that doesn’t even include the $10-million bonus he pocketed for his FedEx Cup title — and helped lead the European team to another thumping of the U.S. squad in the Ryder Cup.
His yearlong performance and ascension to No. 1 for the first time in a career that has included nine tour victories and an Olympic gold medal ran counter to the prevailing theme in recent years about youth taking over the PGA Tour. After turning professional before his 18th birthday, Rose missed the cut in his first 21 events on the European tour and didn’t get his first win on the PGA Tour until he was almost 30, in 2010.
The young guard that includes Jon Rahm, the defending champion in La Quinta, Bryson DeChambeau, Xander Schauffele, Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth has a total of 31 titles, including four majors. None of those players is over 25.
Rose sees tour newcomers who are accustomed to watching players only slightly older than they are win right away and expect to duplicate that, a different approach than 20 years ago.
“They come out just a little bit more aggressive and ready to go than it would have been back in my day, where maybe the mentality was you learn your trade … and you get toward your peak in the 30s,” said Rose, adding that there was a five-year gap between him and the next youngest player on the European Tour when he came out.
“I think that they’re spurring each other on, and there’s a great camaraderie amongst them.”
Rahm, hoping to become the first repeat winner in La Quinta since Johnny Miller in 1976, has been impressed by Rose’s play for years.
“Justin Rose is arguably one of the best ball strikers in the world, if not the best,” he said. “And physically he’s in great shape.
“He’s been playing really good golf for a long time; it’s really impressive.”
Rahm (No. 7) and Rose head a field that includes only one other player ranked in the top 30 in the world, Patrick Cantlay at No. 19. Two-time Classic winner Phil Mickelson, who ended a four-year winless drought last year at 47 years old, returns to the desert as well.
As has been the case since 2016, play will be held at the Stadium and Nicklaus Tournament courses at PGA West and at La Quinta Country Club. Pros will team with amateurs for the first three rounds on each course, then move to the Stadium Course for Sunday’s final round. The tournament was known as the CareerBuilder Challenge before losing its title sponsorship after last year’s event.
The feature groups will all begin play Thursday at La Quinta CC. Rose, the first current No. 1 to play in the event, is paired with Zach Johnson, Rahm with Chez Reavie and Mickelson with Aaron Wise.
Rose has a new 10-club contract with Japanese club maker Honma after playing TaylorMade clubs for 20 years, and he’ll have a new putter in the bag as well. His longtime caddie, Mark Fulcher, is scheduled to have heart surgery Thursday and will be replaced temporarily by Henrik Stenson’s former caddie, Gareth Lord. Rose has played La Quinta, but not the PGA West Courses, which weren’t in the rotation when he played in the desert previously. Add his position as No. 1, and the new year has a whole new look.