LEMONT, Ill. -- A year ago, Justin Rose won twice and entered the PGA TOUR Playoffs for the FedExCup ranked fifth.
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This year, however, the Englishman has come to Cog Hill fighting to advance. Rose ranks 34th with only the top 30 come Sunday qualifying for next week's TOUR Championship presented by Coca-Cola, where the winner of the $10 million bonus will be identified.
So the way Rose sees it, he has nothing to lose -- and the 31-year-old played like it on Thursday as he fired a 63 that gave him a two-stroke lead over Webb Simpson, who happens to be leading the FedExCup, and hometown favorite Mark Wilson.
Rose, meanwhile, was projected at No. 3 when he finished on Thursday. He likely needs to finish 12th or better this week to advance to East Lake.
He wasn't concerned with the projections, though. He just wanted to play as well as he could and the rest would take care of itself.
"I've got everything to gain this week," Rose said. "That's really the way I'm seeing it. Guys who are 26, 27, 28, 29 (in the FedExCup standings) who have played well all year, they might be pretty tense this week because, one, they feel they deserve to be in Atlanta. ...
"For me I still feel like I can make it a great year."
Now, the 2011 season has already been a career-defining one for Simpson, who has won twice in his last three starts -- not unlike Rose did last year as he finally broke through on TOUR. Granted, Simpson's wins were a bit more well-timed but his approach to the Playoffs is not unlike Rose's.
"It's easy to get caught up in it, and it's easy to get thinking about $10 million and all that kind of stuff," Simpson said. "But the reason we were able to win, I think, the main reason is that we've got to do what we're set out to do.
"We're going to work on the things we need to work on regardless of where we stand. So I think that's kind of been our driving force here lately. And the more I can think about, hey, how can we get better for tomorrow, the better I'm going to play."
It's hard to imagine Rose playing better than he did on Thursday, a strange late summer day that dawned decidedly raw after temperatures dipped to 39 degrees overnight. He hit all 14 fairways and 16 of 18 greens in regulation to rank first in both categories. He was tied for 10th in putting with 27 putts and ranked second in strokes gained-puttiing at 3.937.
Turns out, the round of 8 under was one stroke off the course record shot by Tiger Woods in his 2009 victory.
"(I) certainly probably didn't expect that going out there today," Rose said. "I looked to the weather, looked at the temperature, and I thought today was going to be a day to hang in there. Little did I know I was about to play so well. Certainly my best round of the year by a long, long way, and could have been top-five, top-ten rounds I've ever played for sure. That was really, really good out there."
The 63 was Rose's best of the season by two strokes and included nine birdies that ranged from 2 to 16 feet. He credits an hour-long session with Sean Foley on Tuesday where he "cleaned up" a couple of things in his golf swing as being instrumental in his play in the first round.
Their aim was to get the club more on line at the top of his backswing.
"When I have it a little bit laid off, I can throw it quite quickly on the way down," Rose said. "When I have it nicely in the slot at the top of the backswing, the club just falls down nicely into the ball. ... I'm sort of managing to do it with a nice, simple thought, and I think that's the key, is if you can take simple thoughts from the range, that's how you're going to take them to the golf course."
Rose said Thursday's performance was on his "short list" of best rounds ever. Given the conditions and the severity of the golf course, Rose thought breaking 70 would have been "really, really good golf" so he was "ecstatic" about his final score.
The two-time PGA TOUR winner is also pleased to be peaking at the right time. He started the season on a solid note, finishing 25th or better in his first nine starts, including a tie for third at the Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by MasterCard. Rose called it simply "some of the best golf he's ever played" even though a balky putter stood in the way of victory.
In his next 10 starts, though, Rose missed four cuts and only had two finishes in the top 25. He turned things around with a tie for sixth at The Barclays, and he's anxious to see how the rest of the week develops.
"Starting the day today, my mindset was to respect the golf course and to go out there and just fairways and greens it," Rose said. "That sounds simple. I didn't expect to do that and make nine birdies out there for sure. ...
"I think we're going to see the course firm up, especially if it stays cool and a little bit of breeze, it's going to firm up pretty quickly. I don't think it's going to get any easier as the week goes on."
At least Rose took advantage at the right time.