It is a classic "where did it all go wrong?" moment. The young multimillionaire turns around on the balcony of an exclusive Honolulu hotel, sheltering his ears from the ocean crashing its crystal shower on the golden sands beneath to check he has heard the question correctly - "Tell me, whatever happened to Justin Rose?"
The Hampshire lad laughs. "You're joking, right?" he says. "Is that where I've got to now? In the 'whatever happened to...' columns? Maybe it's because I've been around so long, but people tend not to realise I'm only 25. I hate to say it, as it sounds suspiciously like an excuse, but it's also true: time is on my side. I am actually quite happy that my career is on track."
Four days later and Rose is actually quite miserable again, no doubt muttering to himself, "Whatever happened to the Sony Open?" after missing the cut in his first tournament of the year. Still, it could have been worse. Rose at least managed to finish two shots in front of Michelle Wie, who must wait a bit longer to rewrite history after failing to advance to the weekend in her fifth male US Tour event. "Hawaii, five and zero", they will soon be calling it.
Cruel? Golf is, apart from the zillions, of course. Forget the house in Florida, the Thames-side apartment in Putney and take the example of Rose. Here was a skinny 17-year-old thrust into the consciousness of a sport - a nation, even - with a chip-in on a final hole which, incredibly, earned the amateur fourth place in The Open. The clamour to turn professional was irresistible - before 21 consecutive missed cuts proved the folly of giving in to such temptation. And even when he started making them, it was barely worth it. Yes, Rose was a one-hit fluke by any other name.
But then came 2002 and with it a global odyssey of four wins on three continents. The boy wonder had arrived, and the golfing intelligentsia delighted in that Birkdale memory suddenly having the resonance they had once ascribed it. Here, as they promised it would be, was the English golfer of tomorrow - a trifle late, perhaps, but here none the less.
So why is it then, with tomorrow already in full swing, that Rose has gone the intervening four years and 100-odd events without adding to his haul, and why has his stock plummeted to such depths that he has not even qualified for the previous four majors? "Any number of factors, really," explains Rose, although it shouldn't take Miss Marple to unravel to the core of this particular mystery.
Ken Rose's death from leukaemia in September 2002 obviously hit his then 22-year-old son hard, but just how hard Justin suspects he is only now discovering. "When you are that young and lose someone who means that much to you it's bound to knock you sideways," he says. "But then, after a while, you start to think you're OK, think you're over it, when really you're not, and your mind starts wandering when it should be focused. Who can tell what is going on in the deep chambers of the brain and what something like that takes out of you?
"You only have one source of energy, whether it be physical, emotional, mental or whatever, and when you are drained in one area it's going to affect everything. But I think I've toughened up about that now and it's less of a burden. When I was in contention a couple of times at the end of last year, my mind was solely on the task at hand. I wasn't in any way distracted."
Rose shuffles uncomfortably as he says it. The guilt of the bereaved whose subconscious screams it is time to move on is a well-documented phenom-enon, and this highly intelligent young man knows it. "Look, you never want to forget," he says, "but the reason I believe it's a good thing I can now blank it all out is because that is exactly how he would like it. He'd want me to be a hardened professional, a ruthless competitor and do whatever it takes to win. He'd be proud of that quality in me. And, yes, when I do win again the first thing that will come into my mind will be him and the fact that I'd love to be sharing it with him."
Instead, Rose will be sharing it with his long-time girlfriend Kate Phillips, a former international gymnast with whom he has set up home within the gated Orlando community of Lake Nona. At the beginning of 2004, when Rose felt the need that many young European golfers do and so chanced his arm Stateside, Phillips went with him, and when he led the Masters at the halfway point it all appeared such a glorious idea. But then came a third-round 81 and there followed a good year of similar anticlimax, before his form took an upward curve last August.
"Before then, every week I seemed to come 40th, always bloody 40th," he says. "I wasn't struggling with my game so much as unable to get anything going. Mind you, our living arrangements weren't great. While we were having our house built we were staying with friends here, living out of suitcases there... yeah, it was all a bit nomadic. It may be a coincidence, but I started playing better when we were settled. Although there could have been a few other turning points."
Rose is fond of his "turning points", his "key moments", although that could be a simple trait born of the life-changing instant he refers to as "that shot at Birkdale". "There were probably a couple of key moments last year," he starts. "The first was at The Open at St Andrews when I was second reserve and spent all week hanging around on the practice ground before going home. The same thing happened at the US PGA a month later, second reserve again, and it made me think, 'Christ, what's happening, Justin? This isn't what you want'.
"Nothing was wrong with my application, but I still had to give myself a boot up the backside. I was due to go off with eight mates to Las Vegas to celebrate my 25th, which meant me missing one tournament, and because of the nature of the week, probably being a washout for the next as well. I thought, 'What the hell are you doing?' So I rang 'em up and said, 'Sorry, boys, can't do it, have to go and play golf, you crack on without me'. I'd already paid for the flights, so they did, of course, and I went off and played in the Buick Open. It wasn't time to party. It was time to be professional. To take care of business."
The cheques came in, too; 20th at the Buick being the kickstart for an end-of season surge that saw two close third places ensure his US Tour card. "I look on it as I was two good shots away from winning two events, and if I had then everything would be wonderful again; I'd have a top-30 world ranking and be in all the majors and so on. That's how fine the line is in this game, and that's why sometimes the results and your ranking don't show where you are at that minute and where your sights are aimed."
But, however much he squints for it, Rose appreciates he is not yet back in the limelight. "Do I miss it?" he replies. "Of course I do. I've been in it, on and off, since I was about 14. I've always believed that if you're doing well, you're in the limelight. End of."
And never more fiercely does it shine than at the Ryder Cup, the biennial powder-keg that will be relit in Dublin this September. Could Rose yet emerge from the shadows to make it? "People have asked me about it and my reply is that the Ryder Cup is at the back of mind, but the centre of my ambition," he says. "What I mean is first I have to concentrate on playing great golf and if I do, and it's great enough, then the Ryder Cup would be an unbelievable by-product. I know I'm a dark horse, but they do come through, and if I get the slightest sniff I will move heaven and earth to get on that team.
"I've said I'll play more in Europe - which I really want to - but before that I've got to get a decent run going in America to get into the world's top 50, which is so important nowadays.
"While I don't want to pile too much pressure on myself and announce this as a do-or-die year and all that, I am seriously excited by what 2006 might mean to me. Everything would stem from getting off to a good start, and with all my ducks in a row, it all feels marvellous. But realistically I need to win a tournament in the next three months to get in the Masters."
Which, after last week's set-back, will naturally lead cynics to remark that he has two hopes of doing so - no hope and Bob Hope. Fortunately for Rose, this is not as bleak as it sounds. The Bob Hope Classic is this week's stop-off point in California.
LIFE & TIMES
BORN: 30 July 1980, Johannesburg.
HOME CLUB: North Hants.
VITAL STATISTICS: 6ft 2in, 12st 7lb.
CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: Youngest player to represent GB & Ireland in the Walker Cup in 1997 (record broken in 2005), after winning St Andrews Links Trophy. Equalled lowest round by an amateur, 66, in coming joint third in The Open at Royal Birkdale in 1998 - chipping in from 45 yards on last hole. Won Dunhill Championship, Nashua Masters, Chunichi Crowns and British Masters in 2002.
WORLD RANKING: 88 (highest 36 in Sept 2002).
CAREER EARNINGS: $3,327,401.Reuse content