It was back in the 1998 Open championship at Birkdale that the then17-year-old Justin Rose had what he has since called “a snapshot of my potential.” Having played great golf all week, he holed his 50-yard approach at the last to tumultuous applause and finished in a tie for fourth behind winner Mark O’Meara.
The teenage Rose was hardly an Arnold Palmer or a Seve Ballesteros but, like these two giants of the game, he had connected with his audience. Spectators of every age were riveted to his progress, with his fans including a host of local schoolgirls. From time to time, Justin would give them a cheerful wink and the fun of it all fueled his performance.
Rose, who only heard at the weekend that he had secured his spot at this year’s Open, will tell you that there were moments when he genuinely thought that he could win at Birkdale. “My short game,” he recalled, “was so amazing that I can remember standing over the ball and thinking, ‘It doesn’t matter where I hit this – I’m going to get it up and down.’”
That heady week was soon over. Rose turned professional the following day and, though he missed his first cut by no more than a shot, it was the start of a downward spiral which gathered momentum with every passing tournament. In all, he missed 21 successive cuts to the accompaniment of a growing litany of retrospective advice. Some said he was too young to be on Tour, others that he should have gone to college. On a slightly different tack, there were comments along the lines that his father, Ken, was being over-protective and that he should leave his son to fight his own battles instead of travelling with him to the tournaments.
“Justin Rose and Fell” was a headline as cruel as it was clever. When, finally, he did make a cut, Rose returned home to what he thought would be a family celebration, only to learn that his father had been diagnosed with cancer.
It was a couple of years after his Birkdale triumph that a still somewhat beaten and bowed Rose found himself at the adjacent Hillside for a Challenge Tour event. He had this urge to drive round to Birkdale to rekindle old memories but, after pulling up outside the clubhouse, he could not bring himself to get out of the car. “I thought about it for a long time but I kind of wanted to skulk away quietly, not to make a nuisance of myself,” he remembers.
Not until 2008, the year the Open returned to the club, did the moment feel right. Since he had by then won four regular European Tour events – two of them while his father was still alive – he was able to walk through the door with his head held high.
“Finally,” he said, “I didn’t have that awful feeling of not having lived up to expectations. Obviously, I’d had an up-and-down ride but I felt that there had been enough in the way of success for people to appreciate that what happened in 1998 was not a flash in the pan.”
There was no repeat of the fairy-tale in 2008. Instead, his anticlimactic 70th place mirrored his position on that year’s PGA Tour money list. He was better all round in 2009 but it was only at the start of 2010, by which time he and his wife, Kate, were the proud parents of a baby boy, that he sensed he was entering a new phase. Thanks not least to the guidance of his latest coach, Sean Foley, he was starting to look at the bigger picture instead of getting uptight about results.
His recent win at the Memorial, his first on US soil, was one in which he was always in control of his emotions. At the same time, he received the best of end-of-week reports from Jack Nicklaus on his technique. “Your posture is fantastic, your rotation is on the ball and your head position through the ball is 100%,” he told him. “You don’t move at any place.”
Forget what happened at the subsequent Travelers where Rose let a second victory slip away on the greens. His winning week had balanced the ledger, erased the last of his darker memories. They may, to use his own words, have receded to the point where they were no more than “a blur” but he was better off without them.
Today, as he prepares for what is his first Open at St Andrews, he feels that he is starting out afresh. No less than applied during that glorious week of 1998 at Birkdale, the spark is back and his old fans are just waiting for him to ignite.