American Patrick Reed overcame a back injury to lead after the first round of the DP World Championship in Dubai as Justin Rose took a massive step closer to a remarkable Race to Dubai triumph.
Reed carded a flawless 65 at Jumeirah Golf Estates to finish seven under par, a shot ahead of Rose and Australia's Scott Hend, with defending champion Matt Fitzpatrick part of a six-strong group on five under.
Rose was a distant 10th in the money list until claiming more than 2.3million points with back-to-back victories in China and Turkey and came into the week trailing long-time leader Tommy Fleetwood by 256,738.
That means the Olympic champion needs at least a top-five finish to overhaul Fleetwood, whose 73 suffered hugely in comparison with another superb display from playing partner Rose.
"It looks worse and feels worse," Fleetwood admitted. "He played flawless golf. I don't know how long he's going to keep doing this for but it's doing my head in.
It has been a seminal year for Tommy Fleetwood as he looks set to end the campaign as Race to Dubai champion and European No1 at the DP World Tour Championship.
The Englishman took the lead in the European Tour standings after winning in Abu Dhabi in January and has remained in pole position for much of the season, with a second place finish at World Golf Championship and victory at the French Open in July.
With Justin Rose and Sergio Garcia still hot on his tail for the Race to Dubai title, the 26-year-old remains relaxed as he goes into the biggest tournament of his career.
“I don’t want to say like a breakout year, because you don’t know what happens after it, but it’s been the biggest year of my career by a long way,” said Fleetwood.
“I think the goal at the start of the year was to win again. I hadn’t won in three years, whatever it was.
“It’s been like a year of sort of felt like I was reassessing for the first six months because I was on a roll and I just kept having brilliant results.”
The Southport native did have a chance to secure the race last weekend at the Nedbank Golf Challenge in South Africa but had to settle for 10th place – with Branden Grace sealing victory on home soil.
Still, Fleetwood will be crowned No1 irrespective of his placing if Rose finishes outside the top five and Garcia fails to win.
“It’s very special to get to The Race to Dubai, you know, the final event, and be playing to win The Race to Dubai. Something I’ve never been done before. I’ve never been close, and it’s something that I didn’t expect to be doing this year,” said Fleetwood.
“I mean, whatever happens, I’ve never done this before, and it will have been a brilliant experience no matter what. I obviously clearly want to win. Don’t know how many chances you’re going to get in your career to do it.
“I think it would have to be that my game can stand up with the best players in the world in the biggest tournaments.”
Fleetwood may only have one top 10 finish in four appearances at Jumeirah Golf Estates – a ninth place finish in 2016 being his best to date – but is relishing the prospect of stepping out for the final 72 holes of a memorable season regardless of whether he lifts the coveted title or not.
“It’s actually an amazing opportunity and it’s a massive privilege to be able to actually be playing,” he said.
“I’m turning up tomorrow, final event of the year and I’m playing with Justin Rose trying to win a Race to Dubai. Sergio could win it, as well. Sergio, Justin Rose and then me; that’s pretty cool, that.”
It has been ten years since Justin Rose last lifted the Race to Dubai title after a stunning play-off win against Ernie Els at Valderrama and the Englishman hoping history will repeat itself once again.
The 2013 US Open winner was 27 at the time and now over a decade on in his illustrious career, he finds himself in a similar position as he attempts to chase down Tommy Fleetwood’s commanding lead at the top of the Race to Dubai standings.
With 250,000 points separating Rose from the summit of the rankings, the 37-year-old needs a top six finish to have any hope of sealing a second Order of Merit title.
Speaking ahead of the DP World Tour Championship, Rose said; “I think mathematically, Valderrama in 2007, I could have maybe finished second or third, but went ahead and won the tournament. It’s probably something fairly similar this week.”
“But at the end of the day, for me it’s about – to win The Race to Dubai, I have to contend in this tournament one way or another. I need to finish towards the top end of the leaderboard, and if you’re going to finish at the top end of the leaderboard, you may as well focus on trying to win the tournament,” he added.
“The objective is quite simple and quite clear from that point of view. But like I said, it’s Wednesday; it’s too early to think about winning. Thursday is too early to think about winning. Friday is too early to think about winning.”
It’s been a stellar end to the season for Rose since his defeat in the Masters play-off to Sergio Garcia – with back-to-back wins in China and Turkey – and has risen to sixth in the global rankings.
The Birkendale native and his swing coach Sean Foley have done plenty of work over the summer as they looked to rectify some minor putting issues that curtailed his game earlier in the season.
“There’s been a lot of work in a lot of areas of my game, but putting, absolutely. Putting is often what translates from decent golf into winning,” said Rose.
“If I look back at China and Turkey, I would say I putted really well. Putted very solidly from inside six feet. Didn’t give away too many cheap shots there, and then making more 20-footers.”
“I think I focus now a lot more on the skill of putting rather than the technique of putting. By that, I mean green reading, and then just sort of doing performance drills on the putting green, rather than constant stroke work. So I think that my putting feels a lot more simple in my head.”
In theory, there are three players in the running to win the Race to Dubai title, despite Sergio Garcia previously saying he has only a two per cent chance of being crowned champion.
The Spaniard would have to win in Dubai and Fleetwood and Rose to finish among the back markers – something that looks unlikely with their recent strong run of form.
Still, Rose believes fortunes fall in Fleetwood’s favour as both men are set to duel for the European No1 spot.
“I still take Tommy’s chances. You know, I think that any time you have — there’s no givens in golf. Like I said, his lead is significant. It means I’ve got to play well,” said Rose.
“All I wanted to come in here thinking was that if I win, I didn’t want to be too far behind Tommy; that if he finished second, I still couldn’t win. So in some ways controlling my destiny from that point of view is important to me.”
“I think I can just focus on playing good golf and get to the top of the leaderboard. That’s as simple as I’m trying to keep it this week.”