- Gene Wojciechowski, Senior Writer
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ORLANDO, Fla. -- Justin Rose lives in Orlando, but his accent is as British as a cup of Earl Grey at afternoon tea. So you cut him a break when the first-round leader of the Arnold Palmer Invitational relies on his caddie for March Madness advice.
"Louisville," said Mark Fulcher, as he plopped down Rose's bag on the edge of the Bay Hill practice putting green.
That would be the No. 1-seeded Cardinals of the Midwest Regional -- not that Rose had a clue. Unlike Thursday playing partner Tiger Woods, who said he has the Indiana Hoosiers going all the way, Rose didn't fill out an NCAA tournament bracket. Instead, he's concentrating on Arnie's tournament.
Rose shot a 7-under-par 65, which came as a surprise to the guy swinging the club.
"Obviously, if you had said I would shoot a 65 on the range this morning, I would have probably said, 'How many holes have I played?'" said Rose.
This is typical Rose. Understated as a rep tie. Self-deprecating. Refreshingly humble.
Bay Hill was in a cranky mood Thursday morning. It was chilly (in the 50s), damp (thanks to rain a day earlier) and windy. Some of the spectators wrapped themselves in blankets, as if they were tailgating at the Ohio State-Michigan game.
"You couldn't fake the round," said Rose.
No, this was a 65 to be proud of. He shot it in less than perfect conditions and did so playing in the same threesome as Ernie Els and Woods, who attracts galleries like dust to Pledge.
Woods didn't exactly concede the day to Rose. Tiger shot 69, but had a few missed putts and a loose bunker shot that cost him. Rose had one bogey, six birdies and an eagle.
"He had every single facet of the game working," said Woods, who shares a swing coach with Rose -- Sean Foley.
You probably remember Rose from the 2012 Ryder Cup, when he squirmed out of the half-Nelson hold Phil Mickelson had on him through 16 holes of their crucial late Sunday singles match.
Down one as they walked to the 17th green, Rose sank a 40-footer to win the hole and tie the match. Then he sank a 15-footer for birdie to secure a killer point for the Europeans. When rolling the credits for "The Miracle at Medinah," Rose should rate somewhere just below Ian Poulter.
Reminded of those Sunday putts on that late September day, Rose didn't gloat.
"I think somehow I just gutted them and somehow willed them in," he said.
Putting has never been Rose's strength. Check that -- as an amateur, Rose was a great putter.
But in recent years, Rose and his putter got along like Samsung and Apple. On Thursday, however, Rose couldn't miss a thing.
He needed only 25 putts to complete the round. He made 10 putts of 6 feet or longer. He made six putts of 10 feet or longer. He was Chevy Chase in "Caddyshack": nanananananana.
His putting reconstruction process began late last summer. He switched from a mallet to a blade. He changed his putting posture. He spent more time on the greens than mowers.
"There hasn't been a Eureka moment," said Rose. "Today's the first day it's shown up."
As corny as it sounds, Rose believes in the power of hard work. His career has been built on it. He turned pro not long after finishing with a T-4 at the 1998 Open Championship as an amateur. He missed 21 cuts in a row. He persevered. He eventually broke through.
Rose, 32, said the game has tested him, even "dumbfounded me." But here he is, not far removed from a 2012 that saw him win the most money of his PGA Tour career ($4 million plus), and he's retooling his putting stroke.
He isn't afraid to take calculated leaps of faith. He took one after that 1998 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale. He took one when he moved to the States. He's taking one now with a new putting regimen.
Some players do a slow freak-out when they play in Woods' group. Not Rose.
"No, I felt this is my hometown as well," said Rose. "I've got a good little support. I felt like the crowd was good to me out there. Obviously, Tiger is the man here at Bay Hill."
Woods has won at Bay Hill seven times. Rose's best finish here is a T-3 in 2011. But Rose had two things Thursday that Woods didn't have: the lead and a group of 20 or so kids from Rose's charitable foundation following him around the course.
Everyone will be back on Friday, including the threesome of Rose, Woods and Els, and the crowds that trailed them. Rose wouldn't mind if something else returned, too, for the afternoon round.
That new and improved putting stroke.
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