ORLANDO, Fla. – He didn't miss a putt inside 15 feet. He watched good shots and answered with better ones. He ran off a string of birdies to pull away.
That's how Tiger Woods won his last tournament.
This time, he was merely a bystander.
Justin Rose has been working hard on his putting since the U.S. Open last summer, and it paid off in a big way Thursday at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. After struggling at the start in chilly, breezy conditions, Rose came to life with an eagle on the 16th hole, four straight birdies on his back nine and a 7-under 65 at Bay Hill.
That gave him a two-shot lead over John Huh.
Rose took only 25 putts and he was the best in the "strokes gained" category, though most impressive about his flat stick was this: He made six birdies and an eagle, and only one of those putts was inside 10 feet.
"Not everything was perfect today," Rose said. "But the putter was really, really hot. And those are fun days when that happens."
Woods did more than just watch. He is the defending champion at Bay Hill, and a seven-time favorite, and the guy who brought out thousands of fans in the early morning chill. A win this week would return Woods to No. 1 in the world for the first time in nearly 2½ years, though he suddenly is being upon as the best in golf.
He just happened to be second-best in his group on this day.
Woods also had an eagle on the 16th hole, along with four birdies, though he lost momentum with a pair of bogeys at the turn and had his momentum stalled with another ordinary bunker shot that led to bogey. That gave him a 69, which did little to dampen his spirits.
"I kept myself in the tournament," Woods said.
He overwhelmed the par 5s, as he often does at Bay Hill. Woods made birdie with wedges on three of them, and hit a "baby" 9-iron into about 12 feet on the downwind 16th for an eagle. He now has played the par 5s in 118-under par in his 61 rounds.
Rose and Woods played in the morning, the tougher side of the draw because of chilly temperatures in the 50s and a strong breeze. The rough was thick without being terribly high. The hole locations were in spots Woods had not seen very often. The scores were reflective of a challenging morning until Rose and Woods began to pick up the pace on the 16th with their eagle putts.
Woods was tied for the lead at that point, but not for long. On the par-3 17th, he came up short and in a bunker, hit a poor shot and took bogey. Rose holed a 20-foot birdie putt and he was on his way. On the front nine, both made three straight birdies starting on the par-5 fourth. Rose doubled his lead over Woods on the par-3 seventh, however, with a 12-foot birdie putt, and Woods came up short in the bunker and failed to save par.
Given the conditions, a 65 was a superb score — 8.5 shots better than the field average.
"If you had said I would shoot a 65 on the range this morning, I would have probably said, 'How many holes have I played?' And that didn't change much," Rose said. "The first five, six holes out there were a grind."
Huh looked like he might catch him with a birdie on the par-5 sixth hole (he started on the back) to reach 6-under, but that was his last birdie chance. Huh found a fairway bunker off the tee on the ninth hole and took bogey for a 67.
John Rollins and Brad Fritsch were at 68.
Also in the group at 69 with Woods were Ryo Ishikawa of Japan, Nick Watney, Sean O'Hair and Bill Haas, who bogeyed his last two holes.
British Open champion Ernie Els played with Rose and Woods and disappeared quickly. The Big Easy kept pulling his tee shots and getting into trouble, dropping five shots in the opening five holes. He rallied with a 4-iron to 2 feet for birdie on the 18th, and a 9-iron to about the same tap-in range on his final hole at No. 9 to salvage a 75.
Brandt Snedeker, playing for the first time in five weeks because of a rib injury, took triple bogey on his 17th hole and had a 76. Snedeker's 5-iron on the 17th didn't quite clear the hazard where the sand meets the lake. Coming off his injury, he wasn't interesting in trying to gouge it out, which he probably couldn't have done, anyway. At least he had his health at the end of the round. "Encouraged," he said about his ribs.
Phil Mickelson felt terrible about his swing, and it showed. Even so, the four-time major champion made an eagle putt on the 16th to reach 1 under, only to throw those shots away with three-putt bogeys on the last two holes.
"I feel terrible walking off the course," Mickelson said, and this was right after he was randomly selected for a drug test.
For Rose, it was all about the putter — and he didn't even need any help from Steve Stricker, who gave Woods a key putting tip at Doral.
Rose began to work hard on his putting after the U.S. Open last summer, and he's had some decent rounds. At Medinah last September, he knocked in a 45-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole against Phil Mickelson, in effect the difference in Europe winning the cup.
"I dedicated myself at making a few changes and getting better at that part of the game," Rose said. "I've had some good days, no doubt. And today was probably the first real hot day I've had with the blade in a long, long time. We all know it's about consistency and that's what I'm still working towards.
"It's just fun to know that I obviously can do it, and I enjoy a lot of confidence from that."
For all his birdies, it was crucial for Rose not to drop any shots after an early bogey on the 11th, and he did that with par saves on the 14th and 15th. Just as key was the 18th, when he played short of the water for his second shot from the rough, and then made a 10-footer for par.
"Justin played a beautiful round of golf today," Woods said. "He had every single facet of his game working, so we had a good time out there."