The future that Justin Rose trailed as a teenage supernova at Royal Birkdale has finally matured into a substantial present. Rose heads to Merion this week among the favourites to win the US Open. Five top-10s this season, most recently at the Memorial Tournament a week ago, are typical of a run that has seen him rise to a ranking of No 4 in the world. This was how he imagined it would be when, as a 17-year-old kid, he chipped in from the rough short of Birkdale’s final green for a birdie and fourth place at the Open Championship.
In the unfettered optimism of those shoehorned around the green Rose had unlocked the door to golfing majesty. A world of plenty was laid out before him, the game’s major prizes were his to pluck whenever he chose. Hello, destiny calling, come and get me. Too much talent too soon can destroy as easily as it might deliver. Rose charged into the paid ranks wreathed in excited ambition and ran head first into oblivion, otherwise known as 21 missed cuts. It has taken all of the 15 years since to process that experience. Only now does he feel wholly comfortable acknowledging how profound were the mental wounds inflicted.
“I came to realise over the past four or five years that there was a lot of scar tissue from what happened afterwards. That held me back. Until I started winning again there was a lot of self-doubt that kept creeping back from those 21 missed cuts. That was a big old dent in the psyche. It has been a long road back from that. I feel I can talk about that openly now. I would never admit to scar tissue if I felt there was scar tissue. I have accepted it now, which is part of any healing process. I had no option but to fight.
“Credit to those guys who go through something similar after winning a major. I had nothing to measure it against. Guys like Mike Weir, who is battling back as we speak, do and so it must be even harder for them. When I was 17 I thought it was all about now. I had to get my Tour card now. I know everything now. It’s not like that. I’m 32 and it’s not about now. I’m thinking I’ve got another eight to 10 years ahead that will be really good. I’d like it to be now but it doesn’t have to be. Fifteen years is a long time ago, enough time to get perspective, I guess.”
Liberated from the chains of a traumatic induction into the professional world and reinforced by the weight of recent results, Rose has effectively taken full ownership of himself. He fears no-one, not even the reconstituted Tiger Woods, who has racked up four wins already this year, and with whom he shares a coach, Sean Foley. “I stand on the tee with anybody now and feel good. To be among the favourites to win events shows that my game is right there.
“When you win you understand how easy it is because it means you are doing the simple things really well. When you are not winning you are making it harder than it needs to be. You think you are trying hard because you get frustrated but that is not trying hard at all. Trying hard is letting bad shots wash over you and not getting in your own way. Tiger has always been able to let it go, a great strength of his. He is a competitor, He gets it done. He wins tournaments by sheer focus. When you get into that sweet spot all the doubts just go away and that is when you play your best. That is what I’m working towards.”
Woods, despite his recent difficulties at Memorial, where the wind played havoc with most, is once more the game’s ultimate reference point. Rose is of that generation that looked on awed at the achievements of arguably the greatest player golf has seen. The post-2009 downturn in the Woods domestic product offered those who had walked in his shadow a chance to shoot for the stars. Rose grew in stature during this period. The maiden major has yet to be claimed but the fear of Woods has gone if not the respect for his game.
“You have to mark Tiger in a different way. All he needs is the next major. If he gets that he could be running away again like he did in the early 2000s. He is better technically now. And he is putting his socks off again. He is hitting the ball so far because he is so strong. He had been trying to fight that but he accepts it now. He hits that eight-iron 180 yards. I hit it maybe 165. That’s a big difference. Playing alongside him is great. We share a coach and get along well. I played alongside him for the first two days at Bay Hill and came out on top on the first two days. He beat me at the end but he played well and I fell off a little on the Saturday.”
Rose is grouped at Merion in a stellar three-ball with Memorial winner Matt Kuchar and Brandt Snedeker. At the first major of the season, the Masters, Rose was his efficient self in easing into the weekend. It was simply a matter of waiting for the fireworks to start. That would happen at the heart of Amen Corner but on this occasion they would go off in his hands. “I didn’t play the par-three at the Masters this year to make sure I was in the best shape. I played really nicely on Thursday and Friday but didn’t really get a break, didn’t have a chip-in, I didn’t have a putt over 20 feet that went in, I didn’t hole out, nothing really happened. Nothing eased the pressure. Everything was hard work but I was running really well in the top 10 then came the 12th on Saturday. It was a classic not being fully committed to the shot and I made double. Came back the next day and made quad. That is what Augusta does to you. It’s a great hole, but I just lost that bit of focus and it cost me.”
A month later at the richest tournament in golf, the Players Championship, the game poked him in the eye with a big stick. He missed the cut for the first time this year. “I’m happy that the Players happened. I was going along in a nice vein of form, consistent. Sometimes when you are in a spell like that it doesn’t force you to look at your game objectively. You begin to expect results. When it doesn’t go your way frustration can set in. That is what happened at the Players. But it gave me an opportunity to draw breath and reset myself for the rest of the summer. It is inner stuff really, like focus and attitude that can be affected by other things in your life.”
Rose’s relationship with Foley helps in this regard. Foley is not only a swing guru but a deep thinker about life. Rose tunes in to the bits that he finds helpful and politely turns the other way when Foley hits the stream of consciousness button. “I don’t think you will see him as a swing coach at the end of his career. He is a self-improver. He has read all those self-help books. He consults with the best, he flies all over to meet people. He talks to professors on weird levels that I don’t understand. He talks about stuff that is over your head. The great thing about me and Sean is we have a laugh together. We enjoy each other’s company. As much as he knows, I have worked on two or three simple things for four years. It has not gone all over the map and that is why it has worked.”
Rose would take a major anywhere he can. Merion would do very nicely, thank you, but romance dictates that his career will not be complete until he closes the circle he opened at Birkdale all those years ago. That is at least how he sees the world when sifting through the tea leaves. “I have always said to top that experience I have to go on and win that tournament. I moved a long way from that being my career defining moment. I have won big tournaments, done well in the Ryder Cup, but there is always a sense that I need to win the Open to kind of validate that fourth place as a 17-year-old.”
ROSE IN FULL BLOOM - JUSTIN IN NUMBERS
Rose made his major debut at the Open 15 years ago, tying for fourth
Top 10 major finishes achieved by Rose – including two last year
The Briton has twice finished in the top 10 at the US Open – tying for fifth in 2003 and 10th in 2007
Justin Rose is a proud ambassador for Ashworth Golf. For more information on Ashworth golf apparel and footwear visit www.ashworthgolf.com