If Justin Rose has proved anything in his astonishing rise up the rankings this year it is that he has at last summoned the "bounce-back" to put alongside his undoubted ability. Yesterday was like a microcosm of his still-young career – he blew a four-shot lead and then fearlessly reclaimed it again. A first Order of Merit title is now surely just 18 holes, and perhaps the odd mini-disaster, away.
Rose certainly seems up to anything those two belligerent golfing titans, Valderrama and Padraig Harrington, can throw at him today. Alas, the final grouping of the Volvo Masters will not be the head-to-head showdown most were hoping for after Simon Dyson's seven-birdie charge through the field earned him the right to appear alongside the leader. Not to say that the Irishman lost ground in his mission to retain his money-list title. Harrington started four off the pacesetter and the same gap remains, as 71s kept Rose on four under and Harrington, now in a tie for second, on level par.
But after two holes it was so much more intense. Rose began bogey, double bogey, meaning that with Harrington's birdie on the first, the Englishman's advantage had been wiped out in a few golfing instants. The 27-year-old went out there with Walter Hagen's old maxim ringing in his ears – "You're always going to make five mistakes". "Yeah, I wasted my quota in the first two holes," he laughed, being rather unfair to himself as it happens.
His opening five was down to a fractional misjudgement as his sand wedge screwedback on the green into three-putt country; on the next he only slightly overcooked an approach in the thick rough behind the flag. On both holes his driver had divided the fairways and he told himself: "Look, you're swinging it well, you're still joint leader in the tournament, so let's go on from here."
"A couple of years ago I probably wouldn't have seen it that clearly. I would have been frustrated. I would have panicked." And so the cool comeback began, first with a run of pars to steady his ship and then with three birdies in four holes from the eighth to whip the wind back into his sails.
What was most impressive about it all was not just the proximity of Harrington, but also of a rapidly closing field. Names of the calibre of Colin Montgomerie, Ian Poulter, Dyson and Graeme McDowell had appeared on the scoreboards, but Rose was imper-vious. "My caddie said to me, 'Listen, sometimes you're good when your back's against the wall'. It was a question of grinding."
Time and again this season, Rose has recovered from doublebogeys and worse to get straight back into it with rapid-response birdies. Nick Bradley, the coach for whom he turned his back on David Leadbetter last year, has undeniably helped in this regard, imbuing in his charge a mental toughness and self-belief that is not at all natural in this genuinelynice bloke.
Such a new-found conviction has already taken Rose to heights in the rankings he could barely have dreamt of, and his first victory of 2007 today would haul him so far into wonderland as to make the very summit suddenlyvisible. When the revised lists are published tomorrow he could not only figure in the top six, but also as the leading European.
"My goal at the start of the year was to make the top 20," he said. "So anything like that would be well above my expectations. There's plenty to play for in the last round."
You could say that. A near- £500,000 first prize for one thing, and even if Dyson can slip under the radar to deny his close friend, second or even third could give Rose the Order of Merit. Ernie Els, the absent money-list leader, must surely have given up the ghost of hanging on, which might not be a bad thing, considering all the furore caused by the South African's appearance in the Singapore Open. That decision created a somewhat bitter atmosphere to the start of this, the 20th Volvo Masters, but that has been rectified by the battle between Rose and Harrington.
It is still a long way from over, although Harrington did confess how impressed he was by his playing partner's recovery. "It was a fine return to shoot level par after that start," said the Open champion. "The advantage is with him."