Justin Rose overcame a string of challengers to claim the biggest victory of his career at the WGC-Cadillac Championship on a dramatic day’s golf.
A closing round of 70 for a 16 under par aggregate total gave Rose his fifth European Tour title at the second of this season’s World Golf Championships.
The 31 year old beat American left-hander Bubba Watson (74) by a single stroke and World Number One Rory McIlroy (67) by two, in the process leaping back into the top ten of the Official World Golf Ranking, to seventh place.
A bogey at the last gave Rose a nervous wait when Watson, playing in the final group behind him, hit his second shot from the rough to nine feet. But his birdie putt slid past the hole, and Rose was able to breathe a huge sigh of relief.
The triumph is also a huge boost for Rose’s hopes of reclaiming a Ryder Cup berth, having missed out on the 2010 contest at The Celtic Manor Resort.
Rose said: “There’s been a lot of hard work going on in my game, and it’s paid off – but Bubba’s two shots to 18 had me sweating there.
“These moments are incredibly sweet – they are few and far between as a golfer. My son always asks if I’ve won the trophy before, and 90 per cent of the time you have to say ‘No’.
“For this little beauty of a trophy to show up on my mantelpiece so early in the season is definitely a fantastic feeling, and it sets up a very exciting year for me now.”
McIlroy teed off almost certainly thinking he faced too much of a deficit, with eight shots to make up.
Yet after an outward 33 he got up and down from sand for birdie at the tenth, and holed out from the sand for an eagle at the 12th.
Suddenly, he was only one behind, but a bogey on the 14th hole for the second day running left him a mountain to climb again and, with his chances fading, he dropped another shot on the last after finding a tough lie at the back of the green.
“It’s been another good week,” said the 22 year old. “This is my fifth event of the season, and my fifth top five.
“It feels like every time I tee it up, I have a chance to win. Now I’m looking forward to three weeks off to prepare for The Masters.
“I’m feeling more and more comfortable going in these type of situations. Last week [at the Honda Classic] I felt pretty comfortable with the lead, the back nine today I felt pretty good, as well. It’s a shame I couldn’t finish it off, but you can’t win them all.”
South African Charl Schwartzel and Swede Peter Hanson tied for fourth place after carding respective rounds of 68 and 71.
“It was a good week’s work, and it was fun to play with Justin,” said Hanson. “I played very well. I felt on the back nine, I thought if I could stay close to him I was going to get close to winning, but I three-putted the 13th from maybe 30 feet, and that kind of killed my round a little bit.”
Schwartzel, who defends his Masters Tournament title at Augusta next month, was pleased to have given himself a chance of victory after starting the final day eight shots back.
“A 68 in these conditions, I think that’s very decent,” he said. “At least I gave it a run. I just thought standing on the 13th tee that if I can get it to maybe 15 or 16 under, I might have an outside chance. So that was the thought process, and I got close, but in the end I came up just short.”
Watson led by three overnight and had a two-putt birdie on the first, but he threw the tournament wide open with a hat-trick of bogeys from the third hole.
He was in the water there and again from the fifth tee, and Rose’s birdies at the first and fourth holes gave him the lead for the first time.
He then bogeyed the sixth, however, and Keegan Bradley became favourite when he established a two-stroke advantage after seven holes.
However, the US PGA Champion took bogey sixes at the eighth and tenth holes, where he four-putted, and Rose became the man to catch again after further birdies at the tenth and 14th holes.
Watson caught him by suddenly finding form with birdies at the 11th and 12th, but he was bunkered on the next before carding four successive pars to set up a dramatic finale.
World Number Two Luke Donald of England finished in a tie for sixth place on 12 under par after signing off with a round of 69.
He said: “It’s been a bit of a slow start to the year for me, so it’s nice to get back in the mix and I obviously did a lot of good things this week. I don’t think this particular course suits my game, so to come here and have a chance of winning is a very positive step.”