Justin Rose: 'I'm not over-excited about second'

Brian Viner Interviews: One of sport's nice guys enters today's World Match Play at Wentworth having had enough of being a runner-up and with a fresh 'ruthlessness and steel' that he believes could lead to major success in 2008
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It's been a good year for the Roses – Kate and Justin Rose's first full year of married life, which began with the Englishman outside the top 50 best golfers in the world and could yet end, particularly if he does well in the World Match Play Championship at Wentworth which starts today, with him inside the world's top 10. Also, they have both got new cars this year. In January, Rose bought his wife a Range Rover, which is kept at their home in Florida; yesterday he took possession of a Maserati Quattroporte Sport GT Duo Select.

"I went through a patch when I felt I didn't deserve a nice car," he tells me. "I like to use them as treats, not have one for the sake of having one because I can afford one. I like to reward myself. I feel the Maserati is coming at a nice time for me."

We are talking at The Grove on the outskirts of Watford, where Rose has been taking part in a golf day organised by his sponsor, the international brokerage firm Tradition. It is 5pm and the lunch and prize-giving have just finished. Less than 24 hours earlier, Rose was at St Andrews, coming second in the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship, despite having woken up with a badly cricked neck. He and Kate caught the 8.20pm flight from Edinburgh to London, and at 10.45pm he was at his chiropractor's house, receiving treatment. He then managed all of five hours sleep before heading for the Tradition golf day, the sort of event that some professional golfers squeeze grudgingly into their busy schedules and then treat with ill-concealed indifference.

Rose, by contrast, makes sure he meets, chats to, and plays a few holes with every single participant. Later, he goes around every table, bidding everyone goodbye. Then he is whisked off by his manager to sit down with me for an hour. If the 11th best golfer in the world would rather be on his way back to his Thames-side apartment in Putney, to be with Kate before heading off to practice at Wentworth, and I suspect he would, he shows no sign. This is one of sport's nice guys.

But do nice guys come first? Sunday saw him finishing second for the third time this season, and although he now stands only ¿31,407 (£22,433) behind Padraig Harrington in the Order of Merit, and could leapfrog the Irishman at Wentworth, he has no wins under his belt this year. Moreover, while he is one of only seven players to have made the cut in all four of this year's major championships, it was Harrington rather than Rose who ended the bleak eight years in which no European won a major.

"I have done a lot of things well at the right time this year," he says, when I ask whether he feels he is ready to step up to the next level in 2008, perhaps with an Order of Merit behind him, and with his first Ryder Cup place in the bag.

"My self-belief has already gone to another level," he adds. "At Augusta [for the Masters] I pressed all through the back nine, made some wonderful birdies, and got myself right in the hunt. One poor tee shot cost me a double bogey, but I believed in myself, I felt calm, and I know I will win [a major] if I keep feeling that way. I was fifth at the Masters and 10th at the US Open but I feel I was more in the tournament than those results suggest. And at the weekend I was not over-excited about second place. A year ago I would have been tremendously excited."

Narrowly behind him in the Dunhill was the teenage prodigy from Ulster, Rory McIlroy, who burst into the limelight at the Open, just as Rose himself did, aged 17, at Royal Birkdale in 1998. Both turned pro immediately afterwards, too, although there the parallels diverge. McIlroy has prospered greatly since the Open; Rose, heartbreakingly, missed 22 cuts in a row. He must, I venture, have watched McIlroy's progress with interest, given his own experiences?

"Well, I'm obviously aware of the hype surrounding him, but I think he will live up to all the expectations. He's in a much more controlled environment than I was, and what I can offer him in terms of advice he probably doesn't need. I would tell him that you don't have to achieve everything tomorrow. But he's got off to the same start Sergio [Garcia] got off to as a pro, and if you've got that momentum it doesn't have to be a difficult transition. For me all that seems so long ago now. I can't even take my mind back there. It seems like another lifetime and another person, though I don't regret it. It gave me the strength to cope with whatever this game can throw at you."

The game has thrown plenty at Rose, now 27, including a period when he seemed to have dropped off the golfing map altogether, following the death of his father and mentor, Ken. Now he is back on the map in capital letters, not least as a consequence of switching coaches from the unflappable David Leadbetter to the defiantly flappable Nick Bradley, who, somewhat to Rose's embarrassment, has tipped his man to exceed Nick Faldo's haul of six majors.

"With Nick I've gone back to how I learnt the game with my dad, who kept it very simple with me," Rose says. "Every young pro has to go through a period where you change a few things, get a little bit technical, and maybe I'd had that period for too long. Technically we've worked a lot on my set-up, quietening down my leg action, which is something I've struggled with for 10 years. But basically I've gone back to a very simple philosophy which in turn helps me devote more time to the mental side of the game, and made me fresher when I tee up, with more energy to compete."

None the less, I ask him whether he is surprised to find himself competing in the Order of Merit? "Yeah, somewhat. I still don't think I should win it, but I'm within sniffing distance. It's come out of the blue a bit. But I seem to have played well in all the right events. I earnt a big chunk of change by finishing second at the NEC at Firestone." How big was the chunk of change? A flicker of embarrassment. "Erm, $660,000 [£332,000], I think. It's a crazy amount of money. But it got me flying up the money list."

To win that "crazy amount" at Firestone, Rose finished on level par. The winner was eight under, and no prizes for guessing his name. What is it like, I ask him, to be a top golfer in the age of Tiger Woods?

He smiles. "I'm incredibly grateful to him for creating so much interest in the game, the money we play for, the sponsorships. He's a big factor in all of that. At the same time, it's frustrating, maybe for others more than myself so far, to be beaten into second so many times. There's always that question, what if this were another era? But sometimes you just have to enjoy the show.

"I played with him in Chicago a few weeks ago, and I was four or five back of him and [Steve] Stricker, so I had the luxury of standing back and watching. I learnt a lot from that round of golf, seeing that different level of focus, and how easy he made winning look. Mind control is the real power he has over everyone else, not the ability to hit the ball 310 yards. It's useful to watch that and try to implement it."

But how can Rose, a very different character from Woods, replicate that intensity of focus?

"Well, you're right, I'm better off relaxed. But there's obviously a time to focus, and that was what I was trying to put my finger on. He started the round incredibly relaxed, chatting away – 'What did you do last week?'... 'I was on my boat'... 'How's your daughter doing?'... 'Yeah, she's cool' – and all of a sudden he went to another level, focus-wise, and that's how he finished the tournament off. I would also say, though, that for the rest of us, ultimately our competitor is the golf course, not Tiger. A lot of people get wrapped up with Tiger. But who masters the golf course best, wins."

It was Harrington who mastered Carnoustie; Rose must have been encouraged to see a European prevail in the Open Championship he himself covets more than any other major?

"Yeah, I was. Actually, I always thought a European would win there. It's like roulette, if red comes in 12 times in a row, you know it's black's turn sooner or later. The great thing about Harrington is that he proves work ethic equals results. He's left no stone unturned, and I think he has a lot more to achieve, but he's maximised his potential."

And what of his coach's assertion that Rose's own potential exceeds Faldo's six majors? Isn't he too nice? After all, Faldo did it by being utterly single-minded and aloof? "Yes, but then Harrington's as open and nice a guy as you could hope to meet, yet he has a ruthless competitive streak. You need that, and a burning desire, and nerves of steel..." Are these qualities that Rose has? "There have been periods in my career when they've gone missing," he says, smiling. "Now I've got them." Which could make 2008 another good year for the Roses.