Justin Rose and Rory McIlroy in contention as big names close in on glory at PGA comeback event

Justin Rose plans to make the PGA Tour’s grand comeback his own memorable return to the winner’s enclosure. The Englishman is in contention at the Charles Schwab Invitational on a leaderboard that is everything the sport could ever have hoped for after its three-month pandemic lockdown.

Rose has the likes of Rory McIlroy up there for company – the world No 1 shooting a 69 also to stand on 10-under – but the pair has three shots to make up on leader, American Xander Schauffele.

He is certainly close enough, but how Rose would have wished for playing partner Gary Woodland’s finish. While the reigning US Open champion crowned his day with a birdie-birdie climax to reach 12-under, Rose went bogey-par-bogey. 

The contrast in the emotions of these playing partners as they stepped off the 18th green were as obvious as they were understandable. 

Rose produced five birdies on the front nine and even though there was a double-bogey on the fifth, he fought back to claim a share of the lead when he holed a 12-footer on the par-three 13th. But there followed the mediocre finish for the 39-year-old, who has not won in more than a year and who, after topping the rankings as recently as February 2019, is now down in 14th.

Rose, however, knows all too well that Colonial Country Club, the venue where he won this title two years ago, often witnesses dramatic fluctuations due to its tight, tree-lined nature, and if the gusts blow this could prove to be a dramatic finale. 

He simply needs for his form on the greens to persevere and for his long game to be as reliable as his flat-stick was for the first 45 holes. 

“It’s been a mixed bag so far, but I love this place,” Rose acknowledged. “My putting has been amazing but it fell apart a bit on the back nine. Tomorrow will obviously be hugely different to what we’re used to, because of the lack of fans. It’s going to feel weird for everybody, but it’s going to feel as rewarding to win. 

“But look at that leaderboard  – it’s packed with big names and incredibly close. Ultimately we all need to break down the course week-in and week-out and that doesn’t change tomorrow. Obviously the crowd bring the atmosphere and the energy, but that doesn’t change the task.”

Justin Thomas is also on 12-under and you factor in the likes of Woodland as well as Branden Grace, the South African who shot the first ever major 62 in the Open two years ago, on the same mark, and this is as “loaded” a leaderboard as you could be imagine. Yet maybe Jordan Spieth is the most intriguing challenger.

Spieth, also on 12-under, is another past-winner who will also be looking to freshen up his CV with a victory. Except, Spieth’s resume has remained untouched for a baffling amount of time. The three-time major winner who became world No 1 as a 21-year-old, has not won since the 2017 Open Championship at Birkdale. 

Nobody but his worst enemy who doubles up as a tarot-card reader would ever have foreseen the ensuing slump. Spieth was fifth in the world two years ago, but is now 56th. The greatest putter in the game forgot what made him great and tried to emulate the best ball-strikers. 

Under his long-time coach, Cameron McCormick, Spieth – now almost, comparatively, an old man to his former self at 26 – has blessedly gone back to the basics and refocused on his strengths. This short-game master is simply too good to be down amongst the also-rans. Could this be the day he emerges? 

McIlroy sounds as excited as anyone at the prospect of this delicious shootout. “I guess I didn’t feel like I played very well today, but looking at the leaderboard, no one else really pulled away,” McIlroy said. “But I’m within striking distance. If that’s my bad day out  of the way, I have a big chance.”

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