In chilly conditions, Rose heats up at Cog Hill

Justin Rose reacts after a birdie putt on the ninth hole during the first round of the BMW Championship at Cog Hill Golf & Country Club.

Justin Rose reacts after a birdie putt on the ninth hole during the first round of the BMW Championship at Cog Hill Golf & Country Club.

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LEMONT, Ill. – Temperatures dipped to 39 degrees early Thursday morning, rising to a balmy 52 when the first group teed off about 3 hours later at 10:20 a.m. Justin Rose, for one, felt the chill and figured, “It’s a day to hang in there.”

He was wrong. Way wrong.

As it happened, Rose birdied half the golf course and shot 8-under 63. That’s not hanging in there. That’s hanging a “Catch Me If You Can” sign on your back.

“It’s certainly my top round of the year and could have been one of the top five, top 10 rounds I’ve ever played,” Rose said after hitting all 14 fairways and 16 greens in regulation at Cog Hill No. 4.

Golfers, particularly at this level, can be one swing or one swing thought or one round from elevating quickly. In Rose’s case, an hour tuneup session Tuesday with his instructor, Sean Foley, “cleaned something up.”

His polishing involved focusing on his position at the top of the backswing. He sometimes has the tendency of laying the club off.

“When I had it a bit laid off, I can throw it quite quickly on the way down,” Rose said. “When I have it nicely in the slot at the top of the backswing, the club just falls down nicely into the ball. It feels pretty easy. I’m sort of managing to do it with a nice, simple thought.”

Rose started the season nicely, with eight top-20 finishes through the Masters despite some substandard putting at times. He had no more such high finishes until July, and his T-6 at the recent Barclays was his first top 10 since March.

So it was a summer to forget. But he thinks it could be a fall to remember.

“I feel I can still make it a great year,” Rose said.

Bomber Dustin Johnson, the defending champion, called Cog Hill “long and hard.” If it’s long and hard for Johnson, imagine how medium-length hitters might feel.

Yet Rose, thanks to some receptive greens softened by Thursday rain, was able to make nine birdies. To illustrate how good his ball-striking was, consider that his longest birdie putt came from 15 feet.

“I started the day with the mindset to respect the golf course,” Rose said. “I went out thinking about hitting fairways and greens. It’s pretty simple.”

There’s that word again: Simple. The game becomes more that way when the brain finds a way to simplify the swing and the strategy. Never underestimate the value of an uncluttered mind.

Or the value of enjoying your surroundings.

While the likes of Phil Mickelson and Steve Stricker have panned architect Rees Jones’ redo of Cog Hill, Rose was complimentary. He called the greens “about as perfect as you can get them.” He called the golf course “pretty” and “definitely attractive to the eye.”

Rose could say the same about his position. He leads the penultimate playoff event by two strokes over the sizzling hot Webb Simpson, who has won two of his last three starts, and Chicago-area resident Mark Wilson, who has made Cog Hill one of his home courses and, like Simpson, has won twice this year.

Simpson, 26, has emerged as not only the leader in FedEx Cup points and PGA Tour earnings, but also as a nascent star. One strong sign that he could win big is that he also is No. 1 on Tour in the all-around statistic. Not only is his short game about as good as it gets, but he has a complete game.

With one small aberration. He tends to shank the ball now and then.

That’s right. Shank. The S word. Don’t like to write it, don’t like to say it. But somehow it shows up in Simpson’s arsenal at times.

He shanked a ball when he won the Wyndham Championship in Greensboro, N.C., recently. And then he shanked an 8-iron approach on No. 18 here Thursday, only to manage to get up and down, saving par from 12 feet.

In discussing the matter, Simpson said something I never thought I’d hear from a touring pro, much less the current Tour leader.

“I probably shank one every other day on the range,” he said.

Every other day? Hosel rockets?

“Today I had a little trouble getting my hips through the ball,” Simpson said. “So when that happens, the club kind of gets inside and the heel gets to the ball first.”

And the ball squirts 45 degrees to the right. And when it does, pain can follow, if not humor.

Simpson was asked whether he would try to shank a ball at every tournament if he wins this week.

“Maybe,” he said.

He also was asked whether he can shank a ball on demand.

“I wouldn’t try,” he said.

Good answer. For him. And for us, for it ended the S-word line of questioning and exhausted the quota of shank mentions.

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