SOUTHPORT, England — Ten years ago at the British Open, a gangly 17-year-old Justin Rose hit that shot with that wedge to hole out from 57 yards on that last hole at Royal Birkdale to finish fourth as an amateur. It’s the iconic image of the 1998 Open Championship — with apologies to winner Mark O’Meara. Rose’s wedge and scorecard and a photograph of him wearing that red sweater, arms outstretched to the Heavens, are on display outside the clubhouse bar.
Much has changed since then. Back in 1998, by the time he’d hoisted the Claret Jug, O’Meara had more majors (two) than You Know Who (one). And that kid, Rose — who turned pro the day after the championship ended and went on to miss 21 straight cuts — is now World No. 9 and one of Europe’s major contenders.
As well as making him famous, performance has been tough for Rose to live up to. “My expectations changed and so did everybody else’s,” Rose said. “It ended up being a bit of a burden. I got caught up in the rollercoaster being the ‘next big thing.’ It was crazy. I couldn’t function under that pressure. But I feel like I have come through a stronger person and, hopefully, a better player. Had I not had the hard times, who knows what might have happened?”
Looking back, Rose said, “It was a magical week. I don’t think I have ever experienced that same buzz the moment that pitch shot went in.” Does he believe in destiny? Karma? “Fifty one weeks a year, I don’t, but this week maybe I do,” he said smiling.
Rose followed Mickelson’s major strategy of coming in early with a coach (Nick Bradley) to practice and work out a game plan. Rose played the course for the first time in 10 years in May. “It was good to get some homework done ahead of the Open, and to get the nostalgia out of the way, too. Now I can get down to business. There is no better place for me to break through and win a major — and to come back to Birkdale with a legitimate chance to win rather than as a skinny 17-year-old kid whom nobody knew a thing about.”
Rose came back to Birkdale briefly in 2000 while playing a Challenge Tour event nearby. But he lost his nerve and got no further than sitting in his car outside the entrance, reminiscing. “I didn’t want to go in and make too much of a fuss,” Rose said. “I just wanted to skulk away quietly and not make a nuisance of myself. It was nice to go back in May, and now my head is held high.”
His coach Bradley, a spiritual man who studies Buddhism, has helped Rose climb into the world’s top 10. He believes the hullabaloo surrounding Rose this week will, as the Beach Boys said, bring good vibrations to his star player. “Good memories can have a positive effect,” Bradley said. “I believe in horses for courses. I hope I am proved right. Driving accuracy will be vital to create opportunities, but there is nothing out there that makes you think, Oh s—!”
Rose said he must trust that the hard work he has put in will pay off. But the extra distractions surrounding 1998 will be crucial to overcome. “I can’t go out there thinking that this place is a magical wonderland for me and winning is going to happen anyway,” Rose said. “That’s obviously the wrong way to prepare.”
Rose has been accused of being too nice to win a major — too pleasant a chap lacking a killer instinct. It’s a potential weakness that Bradley and Rose have been working on.
“To get to the top in any business, you have to be a bit of a hard-nosed
bastard,” Bradley said. “It will be one of my goals to get Justin to pay less attention to his peers and to become more introverted. His game face is going to get more steely. If the golfing gods look down and he gets the right bounces, which he’ll need, then of course, Justin can win the Open.”
When Rose walked up the 18th fairway back in May, the grandstands were
already erected, turning the hole into an amphitheater. “It brought back wonderful memories,” Rose said. “That’s probably one of the most exciting walks in golf.”
And he can’t help dreaming about what dreams may come this week. “To experience a bigger buzz than ’98, I need to go on and win this tournament,” Rose said. “That’s what I’m striving for — to see my name on top of the leaderboard.”
Actually, the famous wooden scoreboard from 1998 rotted away and has been replaced this year by a snazzy electronic one.
Much has changed in 10 years.