Justin Rose: Brit has his eye on a major collection
US Open champion admits he struggled to refocus after his victory at Merion – proof of which came when he missed The Open cut last summer. Now, as he prepares for Pinehurst next week, he tells Kevin Garside he feels motivated again and ready to claim more honours
The big ones matter, of course they do, but these days they seem to matter for longer: sponsors to please, corporate demands to satisfy, marketing opportunities to chase. And so it was that 11 months after winning the US Open Justin Rose sat on an outdoor stage at Wentworth taking questions about the day from punters with the trophy set before him.
Rose will never forget the 4-iron into the last at Merion, the upward gaze towards the heavens to commune with his late father Ken, the tearful phone call with his mother, the elevation to the highest rank of golfer. There was plenty of stuff to process, much to take in. It was a long road from all those missed cuts at the start of his professional career to major champion. His brain was still screaming when he pitched up at Muirfield to contest the Open Championship a month later.
The missed cut was almost inevitable, and instructive. Rose walked away from East Lothian understanding that the great players are not compromised by success. If he is to substantiate his career with a second, third or even fourth major, he would have to park the lap of honour. The time to reflect on a job well done is when you can't do it any more.
Proud as he was to display the US Open trophy, he is also ready to move on, to relinquish the pot so he might go after it a second time renewed. Be assured that should he triumph again next week at Pinehurst the champagne glasses will be empty long before he strides into Royal Liverpool.
"At the Open last year, I felt underprepared. It was like I hadn't been single-mindedly focused on the task at hand. I tried to convince myself that I was ready to play but I wasn't. I can't deny that now I am ready to move on. This is a nice time to draw a line in the sand.
"I've enjoyed the year of being US Open champion, but I really feel motivated now to move on from that and to win more golf tournaments and especially majors. It's time to create new memories and create new goals. You have the elation of the first win and then the Open rolls around and you've missed the cut and there's another major champion crowned.
"I have young children at home and it didn't seem to have any impact on them. You are still doing bed and breakfast time. When you fast-forward to the end of your career, that's when you can really look back."
Recent changes at Pinehurst No 2 have seen the rough disappear and "native areas" of sand and scrub reinstated. Since Rose failed to qualify for the two US Opens held here, 1999 and 2005, his preparations have not been contaminated by prior experience. The missed cut at the Memorial Tournament in Ohio last week might also work in his favour, not least by keeping him honest.
"I hope that could be a blessing in disguise. It allowed me to spend a couple of extra days at Pinehurst and see things there, similar to what I did at Merion. I've had the chance to get ready and freshen up ahead of the tournament."
Rose has yet to record a victory since his success at Merion, though he tied for second place at the Barclays during the FedEx Play-offs last September and at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship in January. There were also top fives last month at Wells Fargo and the Players Championship as the search continues for the keys to the A game.
"Nothing pointed to me winning the US Open at this time last year. My game just now is remarkably similar to one year ago. I remember trudging around Merion the week before the tournament, trying to find my swing, not playing well and then things began to click. I'm fiddling around with a few swing thoughts and feelings just now as well."
Rose liked what he saw of this North Carolina gem, which relies on its natural contours and convex, undulating greens for protection, unlike Merion, a course that conformed to the more traditional USGA template of narrow fairways and brutal rough. His appreciation of the place was enhanced by his introduction to Willie, an 81-year-old caddie, who has been reading the greens here since he was 10 years old.
"I'm not sure if he could bend down to read a putt because he might not get back up again. But he knows every break on these greens, including those to chip on to. They are so tricky, so that is a big thing. It is important to go round the course with a local; I did that at Merion. You never know what you'll pick up. It influenced the way I saw the holes at Merion."
So Rose advances towards his first major defence somewhat reconstituted, ready to take what the week throws at him and to fashion a future in which he takes what he can in the post-Tiger rush for gold.
At 33, he finds himself the prime filling in the generational sandwich teeing off at Pinehurst, with 43-year-old Phil Mickelson the senior partner and Sheffield's 19-year-old US Amateur champion Matt Fitzpatrick playing his last tournament before turning pro.
The next decade will, says Rose, determine where he sits in the scheme of things. The sight of Mickelson still swinging for glory offers every encouragement and the presence of Fitzpatrick a reminder that opportunity comes with a sell-by-date.
"I think this is a new era for golf. Tiger has every chance to still win plenty but it seemed like he accounted for 50 per cent of major wins over a period of time. Phil has had his fair share but he's maybe only got a couple of years left, so that leaves us guys who are thirty-ish to be the Phil, Ernie [Els], Vijay [Singh] over the next 10 years or so.
"There is the opportunity, I think, for us to win five or six majors. My motivation is that but also to keep getting better as a player, to improve my skill set. Jack Nicklaus learnt how to play in major championships and I think that was a massive thing. That was half the battle."
None would blame Rose for thinking big. Golfing history tells us he is at the optimum age to plunder. It is up to him now to make this time his.
"I don't know if I'm being naïve but I'll turn up on Tuesday and do my press conference, which takes a certain amount of time. After that, it's up to me to say 'no' and do my preparation as normal.
"There will be more people wishing me luck, more people maybe paying attention to me, but I don't think it will be out of control. The fact is, this is a different course. There was a way to play Merion, I did it my way and I prevailed. This is still an element of the unknown, nobody knows what will happen. I view myself as the defending champion, obviously, but I also know this is a different test."
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