Justin Rose owes recent success to brains, technique and a more relaxed approach

March 12, 2012

DORAL, Fla. — Once, in a manner of speaking, Justin Rose was Rory McIlroy. Rose announced himself to the golfing world at the 1998 British Open, where he finished in fourth place as an amateur. At age 17. Rose himself learned about the existence of one Rory McIlroy at the 2007 British Open, where McIlroy, at age 18, was the low amateur.
"And he didn't do it with smoke-and-mirrors," Rose said Sunday night here, after winning the Cadillac Championship.
Golf with an accent has always played well in the United States, from the time when Scottish professionals were laying out early American courses more than 100 years ago to today. Rose is an Englishman who lives in Orlando, and McIlory is an Irishman who is renting a house in Jupiter, Fla., and both men are playing the world but have found a comfortable home on the PGA Tour. Rose turned pro at 17. When McIlory was 17, Darren Clarke told him he was ready to turn pro, but McIlroy decided to wait. Until he was 18. Neither went to college.
The cliché of American high school life is that the "smart" kids go to college and the rest go off to vo-tech school or something and spend their adult lives digging ditches. It's a ridiculous notion, and one you don't see in many other parts of the world, including the British Isles. If you spend any time at all around McIlroy and Rose, you will see that they are both exceedingly intelligent and articulate. They apprenticed in golf at a young age — like Tony Jacklin and Nick Faldo before them — and have turned it into a handsome living. They're one-percenters, not that you'd ever know by talking to them.
McIlroy took the SAT at age 16, when he was thinking about playing college golf at Eastern Tennessee State, and scored over 1,300 without ever visiting Stanley Kaplan. He has a lovely, expressive vocabulary, and so do his parents, who are working-class to their core.
Rose has the mind of a scientist, as Faldo does. He is coached by Sean Foley, a technician's technician who relies greatly on slow-motion video to explain what's going on in the swing. Really, if you didn't score 700 or higher on the golf portion of the SAT, you probably shouldn't be taking lessons with him in the first place.
And it's interesting, because at 17, when he holed out a pitch shot from the hay for his final shot at the Open at Birkdale, he was a golfing savant. But since then he's become a technician. It doesn't make him the most exciting golfer to watch, just as Faldo wasn't. It's always going to be more fun to watch a brilliant and instinctive player like McIlroy, like Seve, like Palmer, like Bobby Jones. Of course, the greatest golfers of all time have been technicians. Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods: 32 majors between them.
Over the past two years, Rose, most stealthily, has become one of the biggest winners in the game, winning four times on Tour. Improved technique has something to do with it. Rose is always honing, honing, honing. When he's on the range, it's with a purpose.
But according to his caddie, Mark Fulcher, Rose's biggest improvement has been his ability to relax on the golf course, to play less high-strung golf. To realize that no single shot, or single round, or single tournament even, is going to change your life.
"We both fancy ourselves to be fairly intelligent people," Fulcher said, sipping a victory beer in the players’ locker room at Doral. He's a caddie of the old school who logged a lot of years on the European Tour, where the caddies don't sniff the players’ locker room and the caddie beer is sometimes pinched. On the course, the caddie said, he and Rose discuss some unexpected things.
At Doral, Fulcher said, the player-caddie conversation was about the Periodic Table of the Elements. "He knew that K was potassium, but he didn't know that Pb was lead," Rose's bagman said. Just another day at the office. It was conversation with a purpose.
"There's a lot of tricks and stuff going on," Rose said later, explaining his on-course relaxation techniques. He's noticeably calmer down the stretch now than he used to be. "It's very easy to say, 'I'm going to be relaxed today.' But you've got to know your tendencies out there. I definitely work on my pace and my rhythm from my golf swing to the way I walk to the way I do everything.
“So I think that's really what changes in most players on the weekend. They tend to get a little quicker."
Quicker leads to pull hooks, balls in water, descents down leaderboards, smaller checks and other nasty stuff. You could do a GEICO commercial about it.
This is all, in a manner of speaking, about intelligence, golfing and otherwise. If you want to play good golf, you had better know yourself. Rory McIlroy and Justin Rose knew themselves as teenagers, and they knew the paths they wanted their lives to take. In the last two weeks, we've all seen the rewards of their devotion, without the benefit of a BA in sociology. Amazing.