It was a bullet-grey sky that blanketed Southport, England, on a July Sunday in 1998, but the low clouds that hung oppressively over Royal Birkdale Golf Club were parted by the radiant sunshine of a young, fresh-faced high school kid who carried all of England on his shoulders.
Skinny as a broomstick, blushing with the rosy cheeks of youth, and his red sweater and blue slacks flapping loosely, 17 year old amateur Justin Rose had electrified the hometown fans, and indeed the entire golf world, by contending for the Claret Jug all the way to the 72nd hole. On Friday his scintillating 66 vaulted him into a tie for second place. Better still, he was paired with Tiger Woods in the second to last group on Saturday with the Claret Jug hanging in the balance.
What does a 17-year-old kid do when faced with the enormity of golf’s world championship and the task of facing golf’s Goliath? Go home and eat some wimpies and whipsies. (That’s what the British call burgers and shakes.)
Then he beat Tiger, 75-77.
But Rose wasn’t done. With the poise of a 20-year veteran Rose hung tough on Championship Sunday, and although he just couldn’t nip Mark O’Meara at the post, while O’Meara won the Claret Jug, Rose won the golf world’s heart and became an British sports hero with one flash of brilliance.
Rose’s second shot to the 72nd hole was 50 yards short of the green and buried in a thick patch of clingy marran grass, an unexploded grenade ready to blast Rose’s otherwise sterling scorecard with a disappointing double bogey. But just as the kid took his stance, a laser beam of sunlight peered through a keyhole in the clouds and flashed off of Rose’s wedge just as he paused at the top. With the precision of a scythe, the blade sliced through the rough. The ball soared skyward, landed on the green and disappeared, and all England rang with the cheering.
Cut to 23 years later, and the sincerity, earnestness and discipline of Justin Rose are still his hallmarks. The kid grew up, but success never spoiled him. He leads by example, both on and off the golf course, and his grit and determination have helped him blossom into a true international star. Rose has won 10 times on the PGA Tour and 12 times internationally, including the 2013 US Open, but that was only after missing the cut in his first 21 professional tournaments and nearly losing his card the first time he tried the PGA Tour.
But with perseverance and patience, Rose bloomed. Steely-nerved and iron willed, Rose proved time after time that his phlegmatic, indeed unflappable demeanor could carry the day in the searing crucible of big time golf.
Just ask Phil Mickelson. America’s second-greatest golfer this generation may have five major championship trophies, but Justin Rose has broken Phil’s heart twice. First, Rose pulled off a reversal for the records books. Trailing as badly as the Americans did in 1999 at The Country Club, the 2012 European Ryder Cup team turned the tables on the USA, and Rose’s win was, perhaps, the most shocking of all. Rose flat-out stole his match with Phil Mickelson after being 1-down on the 17th tee. After Mickelson nearly chipped in to win it, Rose rolled in a double braking bomb from 35-feet that proved the shot of the day to win the hole and tie the match. He then birdied 18 to win.
For an encore, Rose burned Philly Mick again, picking up a US Open trophy that Phil dropped on the ground in 2013 at Merion and taking the title when no one else could survive the quirky, ferocious East Course. On Sunday morning, when the pin sheet was released with zero green light flags and each pin tucked on the edge of disaster, the precise, plodding, patient Rose was suddenly an all most mortal lock. The most swashbuckling player wasn't going to win; the most calculating and executing player was, just like in the 1980s. Hogan said fairways and greens win at Merion, and that's exactly what Rose did – T-2 in fairways hit (42/56, 75%), T-7 in greens in regulation (50/72, 69.4%) and tied for first in birdies with 15.
That type of golf has been the sturdy cornerstone of not just Rose’s success, but his resilience. Recently a New York Times headline blared that Rose -- who opened this Masters with a 65 -- was “an outlier.”
Somebody in the headlines department is not paying attention and doesn’t know a lick about golf history. At various times across his career, Rose frequently led the Tour in driving accuracy, greens in regulation or putting. He’s won golf tournaments on every continent except South America and Antarctica. And thus far, he’s the only golfer in over 100 years to win a gold medal at the Olympics.
Dan Jenkins, the greatest golf writer who ever lived thus far, once rather cynically, but accurately opined that we writers sure can impugn a lot of character and nobility to a guy who wins a golf tournament, but for once we have someone that – win our lose - we can be proud to believe in. Rose may not win the 2021 Masters, but he’s a keeper nonetheless.