After his best year, Rose has big ambitions

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Justin Rose was looking for a fresh start over a breakthrough season in 2007 when he won the season-ending Volvo Masters in Spain to capture the Order of Merit and end the year as the highest-ranked player from Europe.

No one will be fresher at Riviera.

After finishing second in the Nedbank Challenge in South Africa, Rose put the clubs away for a month, then spent the next six weeks getting his body and his game ready for what he hopes will be another big year. The Northern Trust Open, which starts Thursday with a strong field at Riviera, will be his first event in 10 weeks.

"I just wanted to get myself fit and strong and take a long-term approach," Rose said Wednesday. "I thought six weeks I would invest in my fitness would pay dividends down the road somewhere."

There are a lot of places to cash in.

The British Open returns this year to Royal Birkdale, where he first rose to fame. Rose was a 17-year-old amateur with a boyish grin and big dreams when he contended on the weekend, chipped in for birdie on the final hole and tied for fourth. That sent expectations soaring, but when he turned pro the next week, he missed the cut in his first 21 events.

Now, he's where a lot of people expected him to be all along.

The next step would be the Ryder Cup team, one of his chief goals for the year. It's rare when someone can win the Order of Merit before playing in his first Ryder Cup, but that's the road that Rose hopes to take.

"Obviously, a big goal of mine," he said.

Don't get the idea Rose will suffer from rust when the first round gets under way on a Riviera course that is firm and in magnificent condition are a full week of sunshine, even though the pro-am was held in a cool fog.

Sure, it has been 10 weeks since his last tournament, but he's used to that by now.

"It's sometimes good to not have to start fresh, to kind of feel like you're walking from the last green of the last tournament straight to the first tee this year," he said. "Obviously, there has been quite a bit of time off in between, but that was sort of reminiscent of my year last year. I had two periods of five and six weeks off, but I managed to still keep my momentum going."

Rose started 2007 by nearly winning the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic and advancing to the quarterfinals of the Accenture Match Play Championship by beating Phil Mickelson. But back pain forced him to miss the entire Florida swing, and he returned from a five-week break by tying for fifth in the Masters.

He didn't play for nearly two months, then returned at the BMW Championship in England and lost a playoff in the European Tour's flagship event.

Then came the final push. Rose wasn't even thinking about the Order of Merit until he finished second in the Dunhill Links, then won in a playoff at Valderrama to outlast Padraig Harrington for the European money title.

He's not clear of back problems, but at least figures he has them under control.

"You've got to realize there's a weakness there, but I think it's important to realize it can be managed," Rose said. "I've got to stay very disciplined with my workouts and my stretching, and also my schedule."

Riviera is loaded with European players.

Paul Casey, Luke Donald, Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia are among those making their PGA Tour season debut, although they all played in the Middle East last month. Adam Scott of Australia also is playing for the first time on the PGA Tour this year, with his last event at the Qatar Masters, when he closed with a 61 to win.

Tiger Woods is skipping Riviera, where he made his PGA Tour debut as an amateur at age 16, for the second straight year.

Then there's Phil Mickelson, who is playing his fourth straight week on the West Coast, hopeful of capturing the one tournament that has eluded him. Lefty has won in Phoenix and Tucson, San Diego and Pebble Beach and in the desert at the Bob Hope.

He was on the cusp of adding Riviera to his collection with a birdie on the 17th hole last year to take a one-shot lead. But the wrong club to the 18th, a poor chip and a missed putt led to bogey, and he wound up losing to Charles Howell III in a playoff.

He likes his chances, even after a one-hole debacle at Pebble Beach.

Mickelson was trying to get into contention in the third round when an aggressive play and a bad swing caused him to hit out-of-bounds twice on consecutive shots with a hybrid on the par-5 14th, leading to an 11, his highest score on a hole in his PGA Tour career.

Just like that, he missed the cut.

Mickelson was more concerned with his putting, but he thinks he has that sorted out, and LPGA Hall of Famer Amy Alcott was within in his pro-am for a few tips on the subtle breaks of Riviera greens.

"I'm really not worried about putting because I putted really well the weekend of Phoenix to get me into the playoff," he said. "Even though I didn't make anything last week and it was frustrating, I had a great couple of practice sessions and it feels pretty good."

The biggest obstacle might be getting to the course.

Mickelson again is staying at home north of San Diego and will commute by helicopter. He ran into a problem Wednesday when fog forced the chopper to land in nearby Burbank. Mickelson was able to switch pro-am tee times with John Daly.

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