Justin Rose wins at Merion for first major as Phil falls just short once again

June 17, 2013

ARDMORE, Pa. — There was never any doubt that history would be made when the decision was made to bring the 113th United States Open back to Merion Golf Club for the first time in 32 years. We just didn't know exactly what kind of history.

There was Justin Rose, the first Englishman to win the U.S. Open in 43 years since Tony Jacklin did it in 1970.

There was Phil Mickelson, trying to avoid the fate of Sam Snead, who never won an Open. Mickelson made a different kind of history with another heartbreaking finish, collecting his sixth runner-up in the U.S. Open. He already owned the record at five, and this one may have put it out of reach.

And there was Merion itself. There was concern that pre-tournament rain would soften the old course and leave it vulnerable. Instead, it stamped its identity in Open lore as one of the most challenging, difficult and intimidating major championship venues in modern times. No one finished under par for 72 holes. Rose closed with an even-par 70 for a 281 total, one over par. Australia's Jason Day and Mickelson shared second at three over par.

"I don't think anybody expected this golf course to hold up the way it did," said Rose, 32, a four-time winner on the PGA Tour. "It surprised everybody. I'm just glad I was the last man standing.

"This golf club is steeped in history and that really hit home when I came here last week," Rose added. "I was able to appreciate the course in the quiet moments when nobody was around and that's when I fell in love with the course … It's just been a perfect week, start to finish."

It was a wild final round that saw flashes of brilliance and just the opposite. Which meant early exits from the realm of contention.

Luke Donald of England, a former No. 1 in the world, flamed out with a front-nine 42.

Former Masters champion Charl Schwartzel birdied the opening hole, then racked up five bogeys and a double bogey, also shot 42 on the front nine and plummeted out of contention.

Steve Stricker, the 46-year-old Wisconsin native trying to win his first major championship, blocked a tee shot out of bounds on the second hole, then shanked an iron shot out of bounds from the middle of the fairway and made a triple bogey. "I was shellshocked after that," Stricker said.

So much for three big contenders.

Jason Dufner went on a birdie binge and was five under par for his round until the 15th hole, where he hooked a tee shot out of bounds, made a triple bogey and fell back. He shot 67, the low round of the day, even with the triple, a score that was matched by Japan's Hideki Matsuyama. Dufner tied for fourth with British Open champion Ernie Els.

Hunter Mahan, who began the final round tied for the lead with Mickelson, held on until the end, collapsing with a double bogey at the 15th and bogeys at 17 and 18.

Until Rose came on strong on the back nine, though, the spotlight was squarely on Mickelson. He played classic Phil the Thrill golf, a mix of great shots and awful shots. He's had so many tough close calls at the Open — Winged Foot, Pinehurst, Shinnecock Hills and Bethpage Black. Add Merion to the list and it might just go to the head of class. Mickelson led or shared the lead in each of the first three rounds. Sunday, once again, he let it get away. It was Phil being Phil.

"It's very heartbreaking," admitted Mickelson, 43. "This could have been a really big turnaround for me on how I look at the U.S. Open and the tournament that I'd like to win, after having so many good opportunities. Playing very well here and really loving the golf course, this week was my best opportunity, I felt."

Historians can debate later exactly where Mickelson let this one slip. There were a lot of places. Let's start with the third hole, where he plowed his tee shot into a back bunker, blasted out and three-putted on a dangerously slick green for double bogey.

He birdied the fourth, narrowly missing an eagle putt, then three-putted for another double bogey at the fifth, which was his nemesis hole for the week. In fact, the fifth, a monster par 4 with a garishly tilted green, was the nemesis hole for the entire field.

Not carrying a driver in his big, Mickelson said, hurt him at the fifth because it was into the wind. He didn't hit the fairway in four tries. "I should have made bogeys on 3 and 5 and I let them become doubles," Mickelson said. "And those were costly doubles."

Just when it appeared Mickelson was on the verge of fading, he holed a shot from the rough for an unlikely eagle 2 on the short par-4 10th hole. That 75-yard shot would've been the signature moment of this Open, maybe the signature shot of his career, if only he'd gone on to win this thing. It landed softly on the green, rolled out and when the crowd reacted, Mickelson raised his arms above his head and jumped for joy.

"I got lucky and that got me back into it," Mickelson said.

The problem was, Rose was churning out birdies and Mahan, until the end, was playing steady golf. And Mickelson ended up beating himself with a couple of key mistakes. The 13th hole was the tiny par 3 of barely 100 yards. It had just started to rain when Mickelson arrived there and he hit a lower-flighted, odd-looking shot.

He hit a low pitching wedge when, Mickelson said, he used too much club and should've gone to a gap wedge. From over the green in deep grass, he played one of his famous flop shots but it carried way too far and he two-putted for bogey. At 15, he did use his gap wedge and left it short. That led to another costly bogey.

"The two bad shots of the day that I'll look back on were 13 and 15, that's where I let it go," Mickelson said. "Those were the two costly shots."

By the finish, Mickelson knew he needed one more birdie. He had a lengthy birdie putt at the 17th but left his slick putt just a little short. When Rose played the 18th very solidly and made par, Mickelson needed a birdie to tie to force a playoff. He drove it into the rough, played to just short of the green in two and hit a stunning pitch shot that didn't miss hitting the cup by much after caddie Jim (Bones) McKay pulled the pin. The chip ran past the cup and Mickelson missed the par putt, which dropped him into a tie for second with Day.

Rose, watching on a TV in a screening room, began to celebrate his victory. That turned out to be quite a par he made at the 18th. He split the fairway and then put a swing every bit as pretty as the one Ben Hogan famously used to reach the green with a 1-iron in 1950 and deposited his ball on the green for the par he needed. Merion probably won't put a plaque in the fairway for Rose, as it did for Hogan, but he's got plenty of other compensation for his finish.

"What a piece of silverware to be sitting to my right," Rose said at his press conference, admiring his new trophy. "It's just an incredible experience and a childhood dream come true. I've been striving my whole life to win a major. I've holed a putt to win a major championship hundreds of thousands of times on the putting green at home. Preparing for this tournament, I dreamt about the moment of having a putt to win. I'm pretty happy it was a two-incher on the last."

The Open was a good affirmation for swing coach Sean Foley, who also works with Mahan and another fellow called Tiger Woods. Rose and Foley have been working together for four years.

"I feel like my game has gotten better and better every year," Rose said. "I've got to give a lot of credit to Sean."

Foley sent Rose an inspirational text message before Sunday's final round. "He said something along the lines of, Just go out there and be the man that your dad taught you to be and be the man that your kids can look up to," Rose said. "Really, that was my goal today. Great men have come before us. A lot of us have that situation with their fathers."

The scene this Open will be remembered for was the moment after Rose holed out. He leaned back and looked up toward the heavens, paying homage to his father, who passed away when Rose was only 21. "I didn't want to be premature with any celebration out of respect to Phil," Rose said. "He's a world-class player who can pull a rabbit out of the hat at any point. I just felt good that I had done enough, to walk away with my head held high and that's why I was emotional. I didn't want to be hugging and high-fiving and all that until it was official."

The win vaults Rose to another level among the world's elite golfers. Like new Masters champion Adam Scott, expectations for him will be raised. He was already ranked among the top 10 in the world. Now, perhaps, he is ready to make a run at the top. Or close to it.

"Justin has been one of the best ballstrikers in the game the last few years," said Donald, a fellow Englishman who played the final round with Rose. "He showed that today. To win a U.S. Open, you have to have ultimate control of your ball. He did that. He hit some really clutch iron shots down the stretch. And at 17 and 18, he hit the shots that he wanted to hit. This was a great week for Justin and for England."

It was a great week for Merion, too. In fact, it's already history.