It was 1998 when we first met Justin Rose. Back then he was a green and grateful amateur, just 17 years old. But that week in July, he ignited the normally staid English crowd into one joyous celebration after another as he nearly won the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale.
It was sparkling scene: the salty waves lapping at the feet of the mammoth fescue-covered sand dunes, the fairways twisting serpentinely amidst them, cold winds blustering, and the sea air stinging you with the tang of salt. It was a day you wouldn’t leave your mother-in-law outside, quipped one golfer. Scores soared, but the smiling, affable, good-looking local kid fired a 4-under 66 in the second round, good enough for a tie for second place with Tiger Woods.
Woods shot 73 that day.
Usually, that’s the cue for the amateur to take a bow, wave and smile, and then shoot a pair of high 70s, leaving the stage to the older pros, but not Rose. The plucky kid with the dazzling short game hung tough the entire weekend, gutting out a 69 in the final round to finish tied for fourth just two shots back of winner Mark O’Meara. And it was Rose that gave us not only the indelible memory of that Open, but one of the great shots in the tournament’s illustrious history, stealing the show in the end.
Here’s the English kid, the hometown boy, coming home on the 72nd hole and he’s deep in one of Birkdale’s patches of marram grass. You look at the lie he had, and gardener couldn’t get the ball out with a shovel. Yet there’s Rose, magically conjuring the ball out of the rough a la Harry Potter’s Levitation Spell – Wingardium Leviosa! – and sending it scurrying across the green and into the cup.
When that crowd roared, you thought the Rolling Stones were leaving the stage at Wembley.
“Everyone jumped at once the stands actually bent and flexed underneath us. I thought they might buckle,” said one major magazine editor, and he was right. It was a time capsule moment.
If Merion was his coming out party, then Merion was his arrival. By 2013 he was a cagey veteran, at that time winner five times on the PGA Tour, six times on the European Tour, and a 2-time Ryder Cup member. His ball striking was nigh incomparable and his putting was laser perfect.
He just needed it all to fall into place at a major.
Finally it did. That Sunday at Merion, Rose resurrected the shade of Ben Hogan, surgical clockwork precision on a golf course that, even softened by torrential rain, still mystified and flabbergasted the greatest players in the game. Hogan said fairways and greens win at Merion, and that’s exactly what Rose did – T-2 in fairways hit, (42/56, 75%), T-7 in Greens in Reg., (50/72, 69.4%, and tied for first in birdies with 15.
“I came here No. 1 in total driving on the PGA Tour, and last year I led greens in regulation. Ball striking wise I felt like the U.S. Open was beginning to play into being one of the Majors I felt comfortable with,” he explained, cradling the trophy like a newborn son.
That was his arrival. We are now witnessing the full ascension. Though gold medals are not the standard in our sport, Rose outdueled Henrik Stenson, at that time, the reigning Open Champion who fired that brilliant 63 on Sunday at Troon. Rose’s final round 67 included a thrilling birdie at 18 to edge Stenson by one.
Now he’s 18 holes away from a Green Jacket and an English repeat in an American major, a rare feat accomplished only once in golf history. Nick Faldo won back-to-back Masters titles in 1989 and 1990, but other than that no single Englishmen or combination of two English-born players have taken back to back titles in the Masters, the U.S. Open, or the PGA Championship. And you have to go all the way back to 1939 to find repeat English winners in the Open Championship.
Rose is doing it the same way he did at the 2013 U.S. Open. He’s 12th in scoring average and fifth in birdies this year on the PGA Tour. He’s tied for sixth in greens in regulation this week and number one in birdies. He’s T-40 in driving accuracy, but that’s not all that important at Augusta National, it’s a second-shot golf course. It’s meant to be wide, so you can play aggressive golf and encourage creative recovery shots when shots go astray.
One of my colleagues opined that he thought Justin Rose was boring, but with great respect to both him and his esteemed outlet, I must dissent. Rose was not boring when he sent the Birkdale fans into the stratosphere with his youthful pluck. Rose was anything but boring when he turned the tables on Phil Mickelson in singles at the 2012 Ryder Cup, winning the 17th and 18th holes to turn a 1-down deficit to a 1-up win. Rose didn’t bore when he seized the 2013 U.S. Open from Phil by carding late birdies to win. And the roaring on the pines yesterday was a high energy tribute to Rose’s sizzling 31 on the back nine that vaulted him to the top of the leaderboard with Sergio Garcia.
Was Tom Watson boring? Or Ben Crenshaw? Surely then Ben Hogan was the most boring at all. No, if you’re not hearing the roars form across the pond for Rose, if you’re ignoring the birdies he’s carding to go out and win tournaments over equally celebrated and decorated champions, you’re selling him short. Someone who doesn’t root for Justin because he’s not flashy might as well root for the outfits guys wear rather than the players themselves.
But true, ardent golf fans see through the superficial. Golf fans like their heroes humble, and on that score you can (and should) root for Rose all day.
He’s just like golf fans like their heroes – humble. Golfers don’t need trendy. Look where that got Tiger Woods.
And so as Championship Sunday dawns on one of the best leaderboards we’ve seen in several years, it’s Rose who is, for the moment, in the driver’s seat.
“I know my best is good enough. I don’t have to worry about being better,” he said. “Sure there are plenty of guys out there who could shoot a low round, but I know that if I play my best, it’s good enough.”