AUGUSTA, Ga. — I’ll take Masters Competitors for $400, Alex.
The answer is: He said this on Tuesday before the Masters, “I’m coming in with no hype, no expectation, a little under the radar and I feel good with where my game is at.”
Bzzzt! “Who is Angel Cabrera?”
Sorry, wrong. Bzzzt! “Alex, who is Steve Stricker?”
No. Try again. “Bubba Watson, Alex.”
In the form of a question, please. “Sorry. Who is Bubba Watson?”
Wrong! Anyone else? Anyone? Anyone? Bueller?
Enough “Jeopardy!” interlude. The answer we were looking for is Justin Rose of England. How does the reigning United States Open champion arrive in Augusta under the radar? How, indeed?
“That’s pretty much on you guys,” Rose joked to writers Tuesday morning.
He’s half-right. Then again, Rose didn’t back up his breakthrough Open win at Merion with anything else, not that he has to validate anything. But it’s funny that the focus of this Masters has mostly been on Tiger Woods, who’s not here, and the Eisenhower Tree, which is not here, either. Defending champ Adam Scott has gotten a lot of attention, as has former world No. 1 Rory McIlroy, whose game is rounding into shape.
But Rose has been as silent as a vampire walking in the fog on Bourbon Street in his socks. Maybe because he missed the cut at the British Open and wasn’t top 30 at the PGA. Maybe because he wasn’t a factor at either World Golf Championship played in the U.S. this year — he won one match in Tucson and was ousted, he was 34th at Doral — and missed the cut at Bay Hill. That’s how you go unnoticed even when you’re lugging a U.S. Open title around.
The thing is, Rose should be one of the favorites. Besides the Open title, he’s got some history at Augusta. He is a regular Masters rabbit — he was a first-round leader in 2004 and 2007 and led after 36 holes in ’04. He has finished fifth, eighth and 11th in eight tries and knows how to play this track.
“I learned the hard way in 2004, I tried to chase this golf course,” Rose said. “You’ve seen all the eagles and birdie son the back nine over the years and I was trying to do that on Saturday. You can’t chase the course. You’ve got to let it unravel.”
Rose is 33, in the prime of his career and he’s learned where not to hit it at Augusta. Plus, he’s already brushed that major-championship monkey off his back. All he’s trying to do now is add to his resume, not create a resume. That’s less pressure. One other thing he’s figured out is what works for him as preparation. That’s why he took off the two weeks before the Masters, using two days that first week to visit Augusta and play the course. With that background, he arrived here Tuesday morning, fresh and excited to play and as a bonus, he missed Monday’s downpour that turned the day into a washout, anyway. He did something similar at Merion last summer.
He also said something I’ve never heard a golfer say before. Maybe it’s just talk, maybe it’s just high-concept stuff but it sounds good.
“In the past, I’ve always tried to get ready for Thursday,” Rose said. “Now I try to get ready for Saturday and Sunday. I assume my game will put me in contention and I try to get ready for that.”
Form has rarely been a good forecaster of who wins major championships although it’s what the media tends to focus on. Sometimes, it’s better to get a wake-up call that your game isn’t in order, as Rose did when he missed the cut recently at Bay Hill.
“Ultimately, the most important thing is how you feel internally about your game,” he said. “Results-wise, I have nothing to hang my hat on this year other than I know how my game is feeling and how things are shaping up. And yeah, I’m feeling good about this week and the rest of the year.”
Rose is ranked eighth in the world — again, how is this guy coming to the Masters under the radar? Just because he has played sparingly on the U.S. tour, six times in the new wraparound season? That must be it.
The theme of this Masters is that it’s the most wide-open Masters in years, if not decades. With Tiger out and Phil Mickelson struggling and Rory McIlroy coming off the worst year of his career, there are no obvious favorites (although McIlroy is the shrewdest choice). Overall, this has been a season of frequent first-time winners and surprises.
“Yeah, if you’re outside the top 50 in the world this week, you got a great chance,” Rose said, drawing laughter. “I would say 15 guys here separate themselves from the field. You always have unknowns that can happen but 15 guys are favorites. Augusta is different, there’s so much course knowledge that you build up through the years that it swings the pendulum in favor of the more experienced player. I still learn stuff every time I go out on the course.
“You’ve got to get over just being here. It’s such an awe-inspiring place, as a first-time you can’t help but take it all in and potentially not be as laser-focused on the course because there’s a lot to take in.”
Rose, of course, is the second-most famous student of coach Sean Foley, who also coaches that Woods fellow. Rose said a few years ago that his window was age 30 to 40, which is now, to build his golfing legacy. As a kid, he dreamed of winning majors — “Plural,” Rose said for emphasis — and now he’s on that very path.
While the Masters tests every part of a player’s game, it seems as if putting may be the key to winning here. Not three-putting, in fact, is considered crucial. Adam Scott’s victory last year was sparked because Scott, not a good putter by Tour standards, had an exceptional week and led the field in putting stats. In eight Masters, Rose has finished better than 35th in total putts only twice. The greens are one place where he needs to improve.
There are also a few key holes that bother him. He is 30 under par on the last three par-5 holes, the eighth, 13th and 15th but only 2 under at No. 2. He also has played the 11th hole in 11 over par with three doubles. At Augusta, it’s always about the greens, though.
“It probably always comes down to putting,” Rose said. “You are always going to have that moment, that putt you have to make if you are going to win a tournament.”
Rose made his share at Merion, plus that memorable par from the fairway at the 72nd hole with a superb 4-iron shot that trickled just over the green. It’s a surprise that Rose comes here under the radar slightly, considering his Merion performance, but it’s no surprise what he’s targeted on his own radar — winning more majors.