DORAL, Fla. -- It was a little jarring to hear Justin Rose talk about getting old. Even if he was joking -- sort of -- delivering the line with a wry smile lifting the corner of his mouth. Old? His baby face still resembles that of the 17-year-old kid who grew up in London, a wedge in his hands left of the 18th green at Royal Birkdale, holing a pitch that brought the crowd to its feet and gave him a tie for fourth in the British Open.
But that was last century, 1998. Here he was on Sunday night, looking around the World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship trophy and over the edge of the table at his curly-haired, 3-year-old boy, Leo, yelling, "Daddy, daddy," as he tried to scamper out of the reach of his mom, Kate -- who was closing on him.
Rose had just finished doing some very impressive closing of his own, shooting a final-round 70 to come from three strokes behind for his fourth PGA TOUR victory in the past 20 months. He did exactly what he had to do, plotting his way around the TPC Blue Monster course, intelligently playing the dangerous par-4 18th for a bogey five, which was all he needed to win.
Rose has now won more in that span than anyone on TOUR, and he was asked how he's been able to do it.
"Getting old," he said, quickly adding, "31 now. I don't know, just kind of having learned the hard way a little bit. I've certainly had my chances in the past, as well. It's kind of nice to get a little bit of momentum and confidence going. I think it's probably a confidence thing.
"When I do get into contention now, I believe I can go ahead and close it out."
He certainly can, and did, on a blustery Sunday at the TPC Blue Monster. He began the day tied with Keegan Bradley at 14 under, three strokes behind the 54-hole leader, Bubba Watson. With birdies at the first and fourth holes, he closed the gap on Watson and was tied with him as he stood in the fifth fairway while Watson was bogeying the fourth.
As Watson was struggling off the tee, hitting no fairways on the front nine and shooting 39, Rose kept the pressure on by birdieing the par-5 10th, to get to 16-under and take the lead for the first time -- by a stroke over Bradley and Watson. His play at the 14th was textbook: 323-yard drive, center cut, a 52-degree wedge from 135 yards to 5-feet, and the putt for birdie that put him ahead for good.
Only four players hit their approach shots closer than Rose did this week, he was in the top 10 in both greens in regulation and putting average. None of this would come as a surprise his swing coach, Sean Foley. Early in the week, when Foley was asked to rate who among his stable of golfers -- excluding Tiger Woods -- was striking the ball best, he pointed to Rose without any hesitation, citing his confidence as the key.
You can sense by the way Rose is carrying himself these days that he knows he is on to something. On Saturday night, he openly talked about liking his position going into the final round. After showing on Sunday just why he liked it so much, Rose talked about where he thinks he's headed.
But first a little on where's been. When he spoke of learning "the hard way a little bit," it was a major understatement borne of experience. He turned professional at 17, the day after winning the Silver Medal at Birkdale. He learned the hard way a lot. The hard way is missing 21 consecutive cuts very early in his career, going his first four years without a victory, and not winning in the U.S. until 2010.
But with that breakthrough victory at the Memorial Tournament in 2010, Rose's career took off. A few weeks later he won the AT&T National at Aronimink Golf Club, outside Philadelphia. At the end of last year he won a Playoff event, the BMW Championship, at Cog Hill in Lemont, Ill., outside Chicago. Sunday, on another big stage in Miami, he won his first World Golf Championships event.
Rose talks about his victory at the WGC-Cadillac Championship.
That sort of progression would put a bounce in just about any golfer's step, especially one who has paid the sort of dues Rose has. And though he remains essentially unaffected by the trappings of success, Rose is nonetheless brimming with the kind of confidence that breeds more of it.
"No doubt about it," he said. "If you look at the tournaments I've won, Jack's tournament, Tiger's tournament, a Playoff event over here and now a World Golf Championships, the progression is really, really nice. The only thing that really is the next level up is a major."
And here's where all the experience comes in. Rose does not plan to get drawn into the "Best Player Without a Major Championship" trap by talking about how he intends to focus only on the four events with that designation. He realizes where that can lead because he already bore the heavy yoke of expectation when he was a teenager.
"Not to say that I'm at that stage in my career where I'm only focusing on the majors," Rose said. "I think there's a lot more for me to do in the game than to get to that point. But no doubt, I feel my game is getting ready for that.
"But you know, you've got to not maybe put too much emphasis on the majors. I just have to keep preparing well and keep doing what I'm doing at the moment and hopefully you just put yourself in the right situation at the right time."