Rose goes back to his roots but he will have to dig deep to climb so high again
Ten years ago a 17-year-old English amateur almost won the big prize. Now in the world top 10, the weight of expectation is upon him
Sunday 13 July 2008
Where might Laura Robson, the Wimbledon girls' champion, be in 10 years' time? If she is a contender in the main championship then her career will have produced more enduring success than the recent delightful yet fleeting moment on the lawns of SW19. If anyone knows of the pitfalls in having such sudden stardom thrust upon so tender a talent, it is Justin Rose.
This week Rose returns to the scene of his own brush with mid-summer madness a decade ago. Then, at Royal Birkdale, the 17-year-old amateur almost won the Open – and not a junior version but the real thing – and did win the hearts of everyone, from the most giddy of schoolgirls to the most hardened of observers. Now he returns as one of the hardened professionals and a genuine contender for the Claret Jug.
Yet he has never come closer to the most famous prize in golf than on that first attempt, when he finished tied for fourth place after holing out with a pitch shot from 50 yards at the final hole. At the age of 27, Rose is now in a middle ground. He seems to have been around forever – well, a decade of incredible highs and lows – but he has yet to reach the golfer's peak of his early 30s.
Ten years ago he arrived without a care in the world, having qualified only on the Monday of Open week, and was billeted with a "lovely couple called Phil and May". This time he will arrive at a house especially rented for him, his family and entourage, as the European No 1 from last season and the ninth best player inthe world, the highest of a talented group of Englishmen with aspirations at the Open.
Rose has deliberately been to Birkdale already this season to get some of the reminiscing out of the way, but is there anything of that fresh-faced youngster he would like to recapture? "I don't think you'll ever be the underdog again, that's the thing you can never recreate," he said. "It was such a unique atmosphere and such a feeling of goodwill, that's where the carefreeness came from, I suppose.
"I play my best golf when I am enjoying myself, able to shrug off the mistakes. But it is not a carefree head-in-the-clouds, whistling-your-way-round kind of thing. It is more a relaxed confidence. It is such a hard thing to achieve, but if I could go into Birkdale with that feeling it would be great. The challenge is not to get distracted by all the memories but to go in with the right frame of mind. If I could put a little of my approach then into the game I have now, that could be a pretty good combo."
One of the things that helped back then was being an amateur, playing a lot of tournaments on links courses in bad weather. From that point of view, the Open was no different, though being in the final pairing on Saturday afternoon patently was.
These days his game is tail-ored to life on tour. "It's a good point, but I don't think you ever lose that feeling of playing shots on a links course, the imagination you need, even if you only get to do it one week of the year."
This season, in which he has done much to strengthen his occasionally suspect back, has not produced the consistent results of 2007. But he is confident that his game is in good shape. A few more putts going in would do nicely, however. If needs be, he can always look at the video from 1998, something which is stored safely at home. "I haven't watched it for a few years, but in the past when I wasn't playing well it was always good to have a look.
"I'd crank up the volume on that last shot to get the feeling of what it was like. There was a big shout of 'Get in the hole!' as I make contact and Peter Alliss said something classic like, 'By gosh, he's right', which always makes me chuckle.
"But what I'm actually looking at from a technical standpoint is my short game and my putting, because I had an amazing week on and around the greens. Right now it can seem like hard work on the greens, but back then it was a bit more free-flowing. It is good to have as a reference point, almost like my DNA of how I am meant to putt."
As for the pitch on the 72nd hole, it was perfectly flighted, from the rough over a couple of bunkers, landed softly and was always tracking for the hole. This was no fluke. Had it missed, it would have been a tap-in. But what everyone remembers is the roar that accompanied it.
"I don't think I've heard anything louder," Rose said. "But I wish I could remember exactly how loud it was. I went completely numb when the ball went in. I was probably more surprised than anyone. I've heard it's the loudest roar at an Open, or in golf, although Tiger may have had a few. It was pretty special, you couldn't have written anything more dramatic, the way the week worked out. It was a fairytale ending."
And the start of a nightmare. The intention had always been to turn professional on his 18th birthday the following week at the Dutch Open. But the plan was to do it quietly and learn his craft as a professional. Instead, in front of the massed media, he missed by just one stroke the first of 21 cuts in a row. Laura Robson beware.
"My game wasn't ready for that level of scrutiny or for life on tour," he admitted. "I was swept along by the whole thing and it was too much, too soon. But, on the other hand, standing here 10 years later, it also made me a stronger person and a better player." Our Birkdale boy returns as a man of purpose.
Life and times
Born: 30 July 1980 in Johannesburg but moved to England at the age of five.
Personal life: Married to Kate Phillips, a former international gymnast. Lives in Florida, also has home in Putney, London.
Career: July 1998: Tied for fourth place at The Open as an amateur at Royal Birkdale. Turned pro the following week.
August 1998 to June 1999: Missed 21 consecutive cuts on the European Tour.
December 2002: Won his first professional title at Dunhill Championship in South Africa. June 2003: Tied for fifth place at US Open and rose to No 33 in the world rankings.
November 2007: Won Volvo Masters to top European Order of Merit.
December 2007: Became top-ranked European golfer for first time, and seventh in the world.
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