Justin Rose: 'That week I actually felt I was going to win the Open'
On the eve of Justin Rose's return to Birkdale, scene of his amazing amateur showing 10 years ago, James Corrigan hears how he finally came to terms with such early glory
Saturday 12 July 2008
You should never go back, they say, but as a professional golfer you simply have to. Even when the memories are so intense they force your hands to tremble, your brow to perspire and your body to go into its flight, rather than fight, response.
That is, more or less, what happened to Justin Rose when he first attempted a return to Royal Birkdale, the scene of his 17-year-old glory. It was a few years after he had finished fourth in the Open in 1998 as a skinny young amateur and he had decided to pop in on the Southport links while competing in a tournament nearby.
When he pulled into the Jag-filled car park and took a precautionary peek at a place where his young life had taken such a turn for the better – and, who knows, perhaps for the worse? – he felt the panic rising. There he sat, rooted to the driver's seat, before releasing the handbrake and pulling away. Here was one personal Rubicon that could wait a while. Until the next year Birkdale was to host the Open. Until 2008, to be exact.
"So much bad stuff had happened afterwards, I didn't want to go in," Rose recalls. "I just kind of wanted to skulk away quietly, really, and not make a nuisance of myself or embarrass anyone. That's why I waited and that's why it was so nice to make it back to Birkdale proper, 10 years later. I felt when I went there in May that I could turn up with my head held high. That was a nice feeling. A bit different to the last time I was in that car park, yeah."
For one thing he made it to the clubhouse where his picture holds pride of place on the wall and from there he made it to the course and to the 18th hole where a certain chip-in is still attempted by members and guests alike at least half a dozen times a day. And he made it just like they all said he would make it – a top 10 player, with the media hanging on his every word and attendants on his every whim. If only the circuitous journey had seemed so inevitable.
"Yeah, obviously it had been an up-and-down career for me since then, a veritable roller-coaster," Rose says . "But there has been enough success in there for me to say well, that week in 1998 wasn't just a flash in the pan. I can go back there feeling comfortable. And that's why I went up there a few months ago, just to reacclimatise myself and get a certain amount of closure, if you like. I guess I began thinking about it last year and got that feeling of, 'Hey, it's coming around'. So in terms of my preparation I felt I needed to go there and get all the reminiscing out the way. I wanted to remember all the cool things that happened that week. It did all come flooding back."
Adam Scott will testify to that. In fact, the Australian has probably still got the tidemark on the bottoms of his trousers. "It's funny, but for my first practice round at Birkdale in May Adam was also up there doing his own thing and so he called me and said, 'Why don't we play together?'" Rose reveals. "I bet he regretted it. I walked around the course really chewing his ear off, boring him about stuff that happened. I would say, 'This is what happened on this hole' and 'This is where I was leading in the third round'.
"And it wasn't just the golf that came pouring out, but everything. Like on the first green, I think on the fourth day, a little vole came running out of the grass and on to the green and it didn't really know where to go. Everyone was laughing and what have you and it did release some tension. Then a week later, some old lady had knitted a vole and sent it to me as a good luck charm. I had actually forgotten about that until I stood on that green again with Adam."
Poor Adam. Although maybe not; because as the world No 3 now confesses, at the time he was inspired by his peer's heroics, particularly when he watched Rose step up to that 50-yard pitch on the final hole on the final day and effect one of the loudest grandstand finishes the Open has ever witnessed. "I didn't re-enact it for Adam, no," laughs Rose. "I thought it best to steer clear of the precise point where I chipped it from. But I did vaguely point out where my ball had been and where the pin was... Adam then told me where he had been when he was watching it. He was playing in a junior event in the States and he got to LA airport just to see my shot on television. We are a similar age and Adam said he stood there thinking, 'Jeez, who is this kid, stealing all the limelight?'"
It is fair to say that the limelight was drawn to the kid. A few weeks before, an 18-year-old by the name of Michael Owen had announced himself with a stunning striking display at the World Cup in France and so the English summer would be illuminated by its sporting future. Rose was the next boy wonder along on this mythical conveyor belt and the manner in which this unpaid teenager broke down barriers, that everyone including Tiger Woods had previously found insurmountable, screamed that, like Owen, here indeed was the real deal. Even Rose shakes his head at the unlikelihood of his feat.
"Yes, it's amazing, isn't it?" he says. "I think a 17-year-old amateur can only do that by going purely on natural talent and emotion. I rode the crest of a wave, had a nothing-to-lose attitude, had all those things that week. I somehow managed to remove myself from all the pressure, even when I was leading.
"You know, you are only an amateur once and I think you only get support like that off the crowd once. They were going to cheer me on whatever and I just thought, 'Well, everyone expects me to go out and shoot 80 and they'll be OK about it if I do. So just go out there and play and anything better than that will be a bonus'. As it was, there were times during that week when I actually felt I was going to win the tournament. My short game was so outstanding that I remember standing over an approach shot thinking it doesn't matter where I hit this as I'm going to get up and down anyway. It was a rare and, unfortunately, fleeting feeling."
Indeed, within a few months, Rose must have believed it had been felt by someone else. By then, the fame of that chip-in was in the process of being overwritten in the public consciousness with the infamy of 21 missed cuts and already people were asking whether the fates would have been kinder to Rose if that chip had remained above ground. It is a question Rose has toiled with in the intervening years.
In successive interviews he would be known to contradict himself and, apparently, only recently does he appear comfortable in the reply. "I think it would be easy for me to say now that I am glad everything worked out and that, no, I wouldn't change anything," he says. "Yet at the time, when I was missing all those cuts, I did wonder how much different my form would have been if Birkdale hadn't have happened, as I was clearly a much better player than I was showing during that period.
"It was a bittersweet moment I suppose, as it opened a lot of doors for me but made my transition into the professional ranks that much harder. People get it wrong when they say I only turned professional straight after Birkdale because of my showing there. It wasn't like that. My idea all along was to turn pro, but to do it quietly, sneak in through the back door, if you like. I hadn't won a British amateur or anything like that, so there wasn't going to be any big hoo-ha. I would be able to get some experience in pro events under my belt before trying to qualify through Tour school at the end of the season. But then Birkdale came along and my expectations changed and probably everybody else's did as well. My game wasn't ready to deal with that."
Fortunately for Rose his mind was up to the task; if it had not have been, then who knows where he might be plying his trade next week? "To be honest, cuts No 5 to 20 are a complete blur, but those must obviously have been the low points," he says. "I was playing non-glamorous events, struggling away and just participating in an Open Championship, let alone competing in one, seemed a million miles away.
"But the good thing is that I have not been too good at remembering too much about that time and I think that was the defence mechanism for me. I shut it out. Even if I missed a cut by four shots one week and two the next I was very good at not beating myself up even more. I would say to myself, 'I'm getting a little bit closer, a little bit better. Just work hard and things will turn out.'"
Of course, they eventually did, although with Justin Rose, turning the corner never did lead to an uninterrupted highway to a long-predicted destiny. Four wins in 2002 were succeeded by another slump following the death of Ken, his father and mentor, to leukaemia. And as he has re-climbed the hill, like a Sisyphus in Gore-Tex, he has split with coaches, with caddies, with Britain even as he has relocated to Florida with his wife, Kate. Yet it has all turned out just like Birkdale expected and just in time, too, for the European Order of Merit winner ranked ninth in the world.
Tomorrow evening, Rose will pull into that car park and, once again it is highly likely he will find it impossible to leave his motor. But soon the autograph hunters will be dispersed and the police will provide a safe gangway through for Britain's likeliest hope. Here could be a "Car-park Champion" with a difference.
Ten-year Tale The rise, fall, rise, fall and rise of Justin Rose (with a little stumble at the end)
After appearing in the Walker Cup as youngest-ever competitor, Rose finishes fourth in the Open. Turns pro the day after Birkdale, which is the week before his 18th birthday. Immediately receives sponsors' invitations but misses first 10 cuts and forced to go to qualifying school. Falls at first stage.
New season arrives and so do more sponsors' invites into events. Earns cruel nickname "Justin-vite". Misses next 11 cuts to make it 21-0. Eventually makes the weekend at European Masters in June. Finds some form on the Challenge Tour and courageously makes it through Tour school.
Fails to retain card after missing 15 of 28 cuts. Forced to return to Tour school and once again shows his bravery by finishing ninth to retain full playing rights.
Begins the season with a bang by enjoying two runner-up finishes in European Tour events in South Africa, the country of his birth. Solid but hardly spectacular season thereafter, with two more top 10 finishes. Plays all four rounds in the Open at Lytham, just before his 21st birthday.
The potential at last comes to fruition with four victories in a single year. They come on three different continents; South Africa, Japan and Europe (where he wins the British Masters against his friend Ian Poulter). Tragedy hits as his father Ken dies of cancer.
Six top 10 finishes by June, including a tie for fifth place in his first US Open championship. Enjoys more success on the US Tour and signals intent to take up his card there the next season. Form tails off at end of year.
Makes sensational start to the Masters by holding lead after first round. Blows up in third round with an 81 and his season is largely forgettable thereafter. Does keep US Tour card with a string of down-scoreboard placings but misses out in qualifying for the Open as he nosedives out of the world's top 50.
Frustrating year for Rose as he has to sit out all four majors as world ranking dips even lower. Does finish the American season with two top-three finishes, but clearly not all is not right in Team Justin.
Rose bounces back with first victory in four years, at the Australian Masters in November. Just reward for excellent season in which he ditches his long-time coach David Leadbetter for Nick Bradley. New coach claims Rose will be British No 1 and compete in a major within 18 months. Marries Kate Phillips, a former British international gymnast.
Rose is true to Bradley's word. Wins the European Order of Merit title and makes the cut in all four majors. Is one shot behind in the Masters with two to play, before a double-bogey at the 17th. Fine form continues, however, and after victory at the Volvo Masters in Valderrama enters world's top 10. Top-ranked European at No 7.
Takes protracted break over close season to work on physique and conquer back problems. Holds lead in the Masters after the first round but then goes backwards. Worrying cracks appear when he misses the cut in three consecutive tournaments. Briefly returns to form with second place in Memorial in Ohio, before missing the cut in the US Open. Putting a concern as return to Birkdale approaches.
How they saw it: Rose's playing partners in 1998
*First and second rounds (72, 66) Bradley Dredge (GB)
I hadn't heard much about him when the draw came out. Sure, I knew he was 17 and it probably was odd for someone that young to be teeing it up in the Open. But, honestly, I never thought much about it. I was concentrating on what I was doing. I do recall him being a bubbly lad, very friendly, just like he is now, but he was soon to reveal that bit of steel. Those first two days he didn't drive it very well; yet he still managed to get his iron shots on to the green. My father was caddying for me and I remember saying to him, "Dad, how is it he's driving it into the rough and still getting it on to the green, while I'm also hitting it into the rough and having to hit it out sideways?" Maybe he was just getting good lies, I don't know. All I do know is that he took advantage. His putting was unbelievable – I've never seen anything like it. Yeah, you get players who get into a run of holing it from 15 foot but he was canning it from long distances – all the time. It was very rare. I missed the cut, so I was busy trying to find my ball when he hit that 66 on the Friday. That was an incredible score in that wind, but again, he didn't hit it too well off the tee. Justin clearly had good strength of mind and was a good bloke also. It was impossible not to like him.
*Third round (75) *Brian Watts (US)
I was leading by a couple, so was glad to have someone like Justin next to me; a really nice young man who the crowd were going to focus on – and leave me to get on with it. It's funny because I've got a British background – my father was born in Surrey – but I played it down in those early rounds so I would not receive any spotlight. It's fair to say Justin had it all and coped with it remarkably, considering. He could easily have blown up but hung on in there on a tough day. I recall saying to my caddie, "Wow. He's 17. How good's he gonna be?" He was courteous and real friendly and real mature for his age. I wished him good luck at the end. I knew that, long-term, he wouldn't need it.
*Fourth round (69) *Jim Furyk (US)
People have said that was the loudest cheer they've ever heard in golf, but all I want to say is when Justin holed out on the 18th with that chip the noise from the grandstand was indeed deafening. He'd been great all day, really bearing up well in what was a very tense atmosphere and a very close run-in. What a remarkable thing to do at that age. Can you imagine how that feels? Standing there, watching that ball disappear with all those fans standing and clapping? I'll certainly never forget how they and he responded.
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