Rose claims U.S. Open championship behind picture-perfect approach of his own
By Mike McAllister, PGATOUR.COM
ARDMORE, Pa. -- Having just struck the most pressure-packed tee shot of his career, Justin Rose walked up to his ball splitting the middle of the 18th fairway at Merion. The clouds had parted, the sun now glistening on his face. The famous plaque embedded in the grass that celebrates Ben Hogan's iconic 1-iron shot in 1950 was just a few yards away.
There would be no Hy Peskin behind him, the photographer who captured Hogan's swing 63 years ago, an image that Rose has marveled at "a million times." Even so, during the ebb and flow of his own career -- a career that started with 21 missed cuts but has now produced a dozen wins around the world -- the Englishman would wonder when his own moment would come, when he would hit the shot that ultimately defines him.
That moment had arrived. Leading the U.S. Open by one shot, Rose figured par on the 72nd hole would likely seal the win. Time to trust in his swing, trust in himself, and not succumb to the pressure. Time to deliver.
"It's hard not to play Merion and envision yourself hitting the shot that Hogan did," Rose said. "Even in the moment today, that was not lost on me."
So he lashed a 4-iron on a perfect line to the hole. The ball found the green and rolled off the back into the fringe. On NBC, the announcing crew gushed. "That was pure," Johnny Miller said.
Indeed it was. The shot ultimately led to a tap-in par, and after keeping his celebration in check in case Phil Mickelson produced a miracle -- he didn't -- Rose was able to finally smile. And cry tears of joy. At 32, he was finally a major champion, at a course that oozes history and forces its winners to dig deep within themselves.
Hogan had done it from the 18th fairway at Merion. On Sunday, so did Rose.
"Probably put enough of a good swing where Ben Hogan might have thought it was a decent shot, too," said Rose, still a bit dazed after his even-par 70 left him at 1 over and two shots clear of Mickelson and Jason Day.
Sunday's U.S. Open was destined to be won with a dramatic moment. Many had assumed -- or more likely, hoped -- that it would be delivered by Mickelson, who desperately wanted to avoid his sixth runner-up finish at this major. Mickelson, the 54-hole leader who was celebrating his 43rd birthday Sunday, seemed confident and relaxed until a couple of early double bogeys left him scrambling to stay in the hunt and brought others back in the fray.
But when he holed out for eagle at the par-4 10th hole to regain the lead, it seemed to be Mickelson's time. He was back in the lead, while Rose had just three-putted for bogey at the 11th, failing to correctly read off playing partner Luke Donald's putt. The tide was turning in Phil's favor. Fate seemed to have finally decided its champion.
"It was a critical juncture there, critical shot," Mickelson said. "I would have been happy to take birdie there. But to see that ball go in, I really thought that I was in good position.”
"I also knew, though, that I wasn't ahead of anybody by much."
Rose could have, er, wilted at that point. He had heard the roars from the crowd watching Mickelson's shot. He was running out of holes to make things happen. He figured if he didn't reach the 14th hole with the lead, he wouldn't be in charge of his own fate, since the last five holes at Merion are nearly impossible to birdie.
How did he respond? By making birdies at the par-4 12th when his approach finished within 3 feet, then following at the 13th with a 20-foot birdie putt, the kind of lengthy putt that Rose had made to beat Mickelson during their singles match at last year's Ryder Cup. The kind of putt that Mickelson actually applauded during the heat of battle at Medinah.
The momentum had now swung back Rose's way, as he regained the one-shot lead.
"That point was huge," Rose said. "It gave me that little bit of leeway playing the last five holes. I kind of knew that no one was going to play the last five perfectly, so if you were coming into the last five holes 2- or 3-over par, you were going to have a hard time closing out the tournament.
"You kind of needed that little bit of a cushion. And that's what the birdies on 12 and 13 gave me."
Indeed. Rose would give away both strokes with bogeys at the 14th and 16th holes. But Mickelson was in the process of giving away strokes too, and in unexpected fashion. Golf's master wedge player misfired with a pitching wedge at the 13th and a gap wedge at the 15th, setting up two bogeys and keeping him in chase mode. That's not the position you want to be in down the stretch at Merion.
"Those two wedge shots were the two costly shots," Mickelson said.
He did have a respectable birdie opportunity at the 17th, but his putter let him down. In fact, he burnt so many edges on the weekend that you'd thought he was using a bad toaster. Putts that looked on line just found a way to slide by on either side or lip out the back.
And so he will have to live with heartache at the U.S. Open. Again. For the sixth time as a bridesmaid. This time didn't include a meltdown of epic proportions. Just disappointment.
"This one's probably the toughest for me," he said. "At 43 and coming so close five times, it would have changed the way I look at this tournament altogether and the way I would have looked at my record. Except I just keep feeling heartbreak."
Rose, meanwhile, was just feeling euphoria. Perhaps the seeds of this win came two months ago when his friend Adam Scott broke through at the Masters. It was Scott's first major win and the first Masters win for Australia.
Rose sent a congratulatory text to Scott. Scott replied: "Your time's coming up."
Added Rose: "He's a wise man."
Scott's win had shown Rose to not let previous failures dictate his future. Scott shrugged off his own heartbreak in previous majors, particularly last year's British Open.
On Sunday, Rose not only won his first major, but also England's first U.S. Open in 43 years and its first major of any kind since 1996. In the process, he validated a career and finally fulfilled a lifetime of potential.
"This is a journey," Rose said. "Such a satisfying feeling. It goes back 20, 30 years for me dreaming, of hoping, or practicing, of calloused hands. ... You've had to do it the hard way. You've had to do it yourself."
On the 72nd hole at Merion, Rose did it with an approach shot to remember. Hogan would've been proud.