After all those years, Justin Rose finally remembered how wonderful it felt. He heard the roars, absorbed the patriotic passion and lifted his arms to the sky once more. The Englishman’s Open love affair was rekindled.
Granted, Rose did not lift the Claret Jug that Sunday evening 12 months ago at Carnoustie – he tied for second behind Francesco Molinari – and as a major champion and former world No 1 his ambitions are set rather higher than plucky British runner-up. But this was still a personal victory.
For 20 years he had looked at his record and winced at his best performance in his home major coming when he was a skinny 17-year-old. It did not sit right. “I am proud of what I did back then at Birkdale, but it was a bit silly that after all I’ve achieved as a pro, that when it came to the Open I still had to bow to that teenaged amateur who finished fourth,” Rose says.
“Well, in terms of results, at last I eclipsed that. It took me two decades, but I had something else about the Open to brag about. It was the first time I had left the venue feeling positive and that was big to me.”
Of course, Rose would not be a golfer – and certainly not, as he calls himself, an “obsessive golfer” – if he did not ponder the what-might-have-beens. He made the cut on the mark at Carnoustie and only then courtesy of a birdie on the 18th in the second round and with even a semi-decent opening two rounds he would not have been playing an ultimately forlorn game of catch-up.
Yet just in the same way that they do not draw pictures on scorecards, so they fail to encapsulate rich emotion in stark numbers. It is true that with his 64, 69 finish, nobody shot lower than Rose on that weekend, but it is also true that nobody in defeat that afternoon talked with such renewed vigour.
“I told the media straight after that I’d fallen back in love with the Open again and I think I surprised a few people with that statement,” he says.
“But it had basically been me turning up year after year with this narrative of being there to out-fulfil my Open destiny and then me proceeding to come up badly short. Don’t get me wrong, there was a definite sense of ‘if only’ when I left Carnoustie – there always is when you come second – but that was negated by the optimism.
“I had been part of the noise and sounds and feel of the Open and I’d forgotten what that was like. You want to feel that support from the fans, not just because it helps you along, but because it means you are doing what they want. All I had really felt for years was their frustration, and for a tournament that is so resonant in my story that didn’t feel right.
“Carnoustie gave me the confidence to believe that I have the tools to win the Open, that my game is fit for the test and while that may sound strange after finishing fourth as an amateur, and with a US Open in my locker and the Olympic gold and world No 1 and all the other titles, it was a validation that I think I probably needed. Certainly, I’m happy with how I’m framing it in my mind coming into this week.”
So Rose should. He finished third at last month’s US Open, and did so with a display that was decidedly unRose-like as his short game courageously came to his rescue.
“Let’s face it, if my long game had been anywhere near normal I would have been hard to handle at Pebble Beach,” he says. “As it was, I was up there for a long time, was only one back with eight to go and on the bookies’ lists would have been one of the hot favourites to prevail.
“It didn’t happen, because I was struggling with my long game all week and something had to give. There was disappointment, but the way I putted was such an upside it was hard to feel down. I know my ball-striking will come back and if I putt like that again, I can only be excited. I almost took fewer than 100 putts for the week, which really isn’t me, but it wasn’t a one-off, as I’ve worked so hard at it.
“I actually think I’m a low-maintenance putter now and that I can just go out there and do it, without worrying about technique or anything. It’s funny, as most players get worse on the greens as they get older, but I feel it’s the other way with me. That’s another big tick in the column for Portrush.”
Many will feel that a minus will be that, like Tiger Woods, Rose has not played since the US Open. “No, I’ve never gone into the Open without a prep event before, but then this an unprecedented season, with the new calendar and the [US] PGA being brought forward to May,” he says.
“We are all unsure how to approach it and I’ve gone for being mentally fresh and having the energy levels, which I think is vital in majors. The major season is about peaking at the right time, but now it is so condensed it’s difficult to come down and then raise yourself and your game again so quick. I thought the new schedule would be a good thing, but now I’m not sure. This will be it for the majors after Portrush, and it’s still only July.
“Yeah there is the FedEx Cup in August and next year there will be the Ryder Cup and Olympics to follow, but, if we are honest, it’s all happened because of the FedEx and the PGA Tour wanting to grab a better TV slot, without competing against the NFL.
“I can understand that, but people don’t remember how many FedEx Cups you’ve won. I won it last year and was proud, but people don’t come up to me and say, ‘Hey, you won the FedEx!’. It’s the US Open, the Olympic gold, the Ryder Cup. I’m not totally in favour of the overhaul. The majors are the thing.”
Rose makes no secret about his mission to graduate to the “multiple” ranks and so leave behind the “one and done” brigade. Since his 2013 breakthrough at Merion, he has preached patience and relied on the old numbers theory – “keep getting into contention on a Sunday and another piece of silverware will eventually come” – but now there is definite urgency.
“There really is,” Rose says. “I’m 40 next year and yes, the clock is ticking. I’ve had three top threes in the majors in the last three seasons, with two seconds, so I know I’m right there doing the right things. It’s just a case of making it happen again, because the chances won’t keep coming forever.”
The Open would be the perfect tournament and must represent a tantalising opportunity – especially now that he does not have an inspired 17-year-old to beat any more.