As consecutive shots go in Open Championships at Royal Birkdale, Justin Rose's last in 1998 and his first yesterday could hardly have been more different. On a balmy Sunday afternoon 10 years ago, Rose, then an unworldly amateur aged 17, pitched into the 18th hole to finish tied for fourth. At just before 7.45am yesterday, in a mighty wind and relentless rain, the wiser Rose, with seven professional victories and a European Order of Merit under his belt, struck an unconvincing two-iron off the first tee and watched it dribble into the first cut of rough, right of the fairway.
The toughest of golfing challenges was underway. Birkdale is ferocious when the prevailing wind carries the rain off the Irish Sea, and Rose needed all his admirable equanimity to put behind him a series of mini-humiliations, including a tee-shot on the fifth that would have forced an expletive from a 12-handicapper, and a double-bogey six on the long sixth that was nearly a seven. Four over at the turn, outplayed and outscored by a playing partner comfortably old enough to be his father, indeed the oldest man in the field, the venerable Tom Watson, Rose embarked on the back nine knowing that with too many more dropped shots, he wouldn't carry even into this morning, let alone Sunday afternoon, a realistic chance of winning the Open.
It was to his enormous credit, therefore, that more than two hours later he stood over a short putt on the 18th green, the very place where all that expectation was kindled a decade ago, needing to sink it for a sub-par inward half. As it happened he missed, but nine successive pars and a stoical round of 74 left Rose handily placed at the end of a day on which the atrocious but slowly improving weather conspired horribly against those with the earliest starting times.
As for the five-time Open champion Watson, at 58 he is older than Rose and their other playing partner, the 27-year-old Australian Aaron Baddeley, put together. But twice their combined age also means twice their combined experience. As the old-timer waited to strike his opening shot, a policeman who had been standing there since play started at 6.30am observed that Watson was the first man to walk to the exposed front edge of the first tee, tasting the wind.
Watson comes from Kansas City, where they know about wind. And he didn't win five Opens, including one here 25 years ago, without learning how to cope with seriously inclement weather. On the eighth hole, so lashed by the elements that one half-expected to see King Lear staggering around the fairway, it was hard to decide which was the finer achievement: Watson's, in making a birdie three, or his caddie's, in managing to light a cigarette. Whatever, Watson too finished with a 74, but it was a 74 that could have been a good deal better, unlike Rose's, which could have been a good deal worse. So could Baddeley's 75. It took him eight holes to hit a green in regulation figures.
Hitting greens wasn't Watson's problem – he did so imperiously – but locating the hole was. Had his putter been firing as it once did, he would have woken up this morning looking down from the top of the leaderboard. Afterwards, Rose acknowledged that he had learnt some valuable lessons from the American's game, especially the way that he reads the wind.
"He's awesome," he said. He had asked Watson whether this was the nastiest weather he had experienced in an Open career that stretches back to 1975, and Watson said it bore comparison with the first day at Muirfield in 1980. "I said, 'Oh, what did you shoot?' and he said, '68'," Rose, who at the time was sheltered from the weather in his mother's womb, recounted with a smile. Still, the admiration was mutual, with the older man looking enviously at the youthful strength of Rose and Baddeley, so helpful into the teeth of the wind. At the 436-yard 11th Watson nailed a drive, and duly received applause from the gallery, only to find that his ball hadn't quite reached the fairway. He then busted a three-wood, and was still short of the green.
He can console himself with the knowledge that the course at Troon for the British Seniors Open next week will not be so brutal. Moreover, his fellow oldies play with a little more haste than these whippersnappers. At the 13th the group was "put on the clock", and Watson, in his charming way, later expressed just a hint of frustration with the speed of Rose and Baddeley (who, wisecracked a Scouser in the crowd, was "slower than a tax rebate"). "They played better when they played faster," he said.