‘Better, stronger, looser’ – injury-hit Justin Rose warns rivals he’s over worst as he defends Hong Kong Open title
Englishman off to solid start while Spanish Ryder Cup teammate Rafa Cabrera Bello eagles his last hole to finish on six under par and take first-round lead
Justin Rose could hardly bend over to pick his ball up, but still battled his way round Hong Kong Golf Club in level-par – and the defending champion warned those at the top of the leaderboard that he expects to get better and better in the coming days.
Ryder Cup teammate Rafael Cabrera Bello set the pace on day one, a stunning eagle on his last hole helping him to a six-under 64.
But the importance of Olympic champion Rose to the competition was underlined by the packed galleries that followed his every move.
Having pulled out of the Hero World Challenge last week after just one round with a back injury, Rose was clearly far from comfortable, but still almost had a sensational albatross when his second shot on 13 hit the pin from 230-some yards out.
He had three bogies as he struggled to read the greens having not had a practice round, but said his game – and his body – were getting better and better.
“I think the worst thing was picking the ball out of the hole – that’s why I wasn’t holing putts because I didn’t want to bend over,” joked the former US Open champion.
“Swinging wise I felt fine – I came off today a lot better than I did at the Hero last week and I feel optimistic I’m through the worst of it and can get better and stronger and looser each day.
“I played quite well in spells but I was very underprepared didn’t have a clue of the speed of the greens and had a few three-putts because of that but with one round under my belt I’m feeling a lot better.
“It’s not the ideal start but I feel if we can wake up and get going in the morning, shoot something in the sixties, I’l be right in it going into the weekend.”
Rose’s fellow Ryder Cup star Cabrera Bello had a flawless round with four birdies before holing from the fairway with his second shot on the par-four 10th, his final hole.
Sebastien Gros of France was one shot further back after a 65 ahead of 10 players on -4 and another nine on -3.
“Yeah, that was nice,” was Cabrera Bello’s somewhat understated assessment of the undisputed shot of the day, a flighted iron to six inches that spun backwards into the hole.
After a season in which he’s made the cut at all the majors, had a Ryder Cup debut, played in the Olympics, it was yet another first.
“I had perfect distance, hit a really good shot and was surprised to see it go in. But I had never really finished a round like that, and it felt nice.
“I played really smart today, made very few mistakes, even though I hit every green, pretty much all of them, didn’t give myself in trouble off the tee. I was in control of the round all day and putted nicely, too, so it was nice work out there.”
Cabrera Bello might have been happy Rose didn’t outdo his eagle with an albatross, but not as glad as someone else, revealed the Englishman.
“I’ve never had an albatross before,” Rose said. “That’s the only thing my caddy has over me in our golfing career, he’s had one and I haven’t so I think he was pretty glad it stayed out to be honest!”
Former champion Ian Poulter finished his first round with a solid two-under, but he was furious with four bogies on his card.
“Poor focus led to a bogey, a bogey there,” he said. “So I’m really annoyed. I’m probably going to need to go to a padded room for about half an hour, and then I’ll be all right.”
Among other big names, Masters champion Danny Willett was two-under par, four-time champ Miguel Angel Jimenez was -1 and American star Patrick Reed was level.