British Open

Justin Rose

It has been a decade of highs and lows for Justin Rose after contending in the Open at 17

Justin Rose
July 2007

Justin Rose strikes a pose--head back, arms outstretched and palms up--as if awaiting something big. As several photo assistants toss handfuls of rose petals above his head and a shutter goes off, Rose gets watery-eyed trying his best not to blink.

After each shot, the photographer studies the digital image on the back of his camera and says things like, "Almost, but the pattern's a bit too dense," or, "This one would have been perfect, but there's a petal blocking his eye. Just a few more, Justin."

It's not the sort of detail work young millionaire athletes are known to tolerate for long, but Rose shows no trace of annoyance. All the more remarkable because herniated discs in his lower back--which had already caused him to miss more than a month of the 2007 PGA Tour season and would in a few days require a trip to a specialist--are making him stiff. But he doesn't balk when asked to place his head through a makeshift wall of roses, requiring him to stay in a slightly stooped position. The effort eventually elicits a couple of grimaced stretches and finally Rose's version of a tantrum: a quick look at his watch.

No doubt Rose's patience reflects the upbringing he received in the English suburb of Fleet, 40 miles southwest of London. "Justin has always had very good manners," says his mother, Annie. "We imposed discipline, and he seemed to welcome it." Surely the lessons have been reinforced by golf, because if Rose has been forced to learn anything in his nine years as a professional, it has been how to wait.

Of course, when he made history by tying for fourth at the 1998 British Open as a 17-year-old, it was as if all of British golf had been waiting for him. Comparisons with Tiger Woods were rampant, and Rose was declared the long-overdue successor to Nick Faldo. But after turning pro the next day, Rose missed 21 cuts in a row, perhaps the worst baptismal nightmare for a high-profile young player in the history of the game.

Rose's greatest feat might always be the way he emerged from the void in 2002 for his first professional victory, in his birth country of South Africa. But at almost the same time, Rose learned that his father, Ken, who had placed a plastic golf club in his hands at 11 months old, had leukemia. Rose won three more times that year, presenting two trophies to his father in his hospital room while earning the third with a frail Ken Rose in attendance. But it's hard to refute that his father's death at age 57 in September 2002 had a role in a four-year stretch of winless and mostly disappointing golf, dropping Rose out of the top 100 in the World Golf Ranking.

At the same time, and despite Rose's head start, a group of 20-somethings were moving into the top echelon of the game. Adam Scott, Geoff Ogilvy, Luke Donald, Trevor Immelman, Paul Casey, Sergio Garcia, Aaron Baddeley and Charles Howell III all have better credentials and, in most cases, flashier abilities. Rose has yet to win a PGA Tour event, play in the Ryder Cup, or make lists of the best players yet to win a major. And though his work ethic is at least the equal of anyone in the group, Rose, relatively speaking, waits.

Under the guidance of swing coach Nick Bradley, with whom he began working exclusively in May 2006, Rose's game has reached a new level. His comments have also become less self-effacing, in part because of the influence of the brash Bradley, a Brit who told the media, "There is no question in my mind that Justin can beat Nick Faldo's record of six majors."

Now, Bradley explains, "I said that because I see in Justin the 1989-'90 model of Faldo: a precision player who's a superior manager. But there's another reason. In Britain, we are almost ashamed to say, 'I want to achieve.' It's earmarked as being pompous and arrogant, incredibly bad manners. That's a value I--and Justin--can do without."

Though the Faldo comparison probably induced a momentary facial tic, Rose did not disassociate himself from his cheeky mentor. "It's quite true that what Nick said is not very English," he says, clipping his syllables like a lob wedge off a tight lie. "Some might frown on the American bravado, but in athletics, I've come to favor the American way. That bold self-belief is what it takes."


"In some ways, the best shot of my life was the worst thing that could have happened," Rose says. / Photo: Ben Van Hook

Lately, the positivity has been self-perpetuating. Last November, Rose ended his victory drought at the Australian Masters. After a a tie for fifth place this year at Augusta, Rose, at age 26, raised his World Ranking to a career-best 26th. Committed to playing the PGA Tour full-time since 2004, and newly married to Kate, a former member of championship British acrobatic-gymnastics teams, Rose splits his time between his home at Lake Nona in Orlando and a Thames-side apartment in London. In many ways he's living the dream he envisioned when he left school at 16. "I don't regret not attending college," says Rose, who excelled academically at British public school. "It was a question of how I could get better faster, and for all the bumps, I think I chose the right path for me."

Because the pinnacle of the dream is a claret jug, Rose is especially looking forward to returning to Carnoustie, where a good showing could close the books on a long chapter. It was there at the 1999 British Open that Rose shot 79-77 to miss his 23rd cut in 25 professional events.

A year before, Rose had holed a 50-yard pitch shot for a birdie 3 on the 72nd hole at Royal Birkdale for the best finish by an amateur in the world's oldest championship in 45 years. When the ball disappeared, the grandstands erupted with the loudest roar ever heard at a major--until the explosion from Tiger Woods' 90-degree trickler at the 16th hole in the 2005 Masters. But for a very long time, about the only sounds Rose would hear from galleries were uncomfortable silence and sympathetic applause.

"In some ways, the best shot of my life was the worst thing that could have happened," he says, not for the first time. "As a defense mechanism, I've blocked out as much as I could from that period, to the point that I don't even have any vivid memories of Birkdale, other than a feeling of pure, nothing-to-lose amateurism. There's no denying it led to a huge knock that cost me a lot of confidence. Probably to this day, I'm trying to get that sky-high confidence back."

Rose was taking sponsors' exemptions when he should have been taking time off to regain his bearings, a cycle that led Europe's professional caddies--the game's best at cutting to the quick--to dub him "Justin-Vite."

"Contrary to what most people think, I was going to turn pro after Birkdale no matter how I played," he says. "I had some invites set up, but mainly I had a plan of playing on satellite tours, going to the Q school and becoming exempt on the European tour within three years. But then everything happened, and everyone got way ahead of themselves. Every tournament wanted me, and because there was a lot of talk of future endorsements and other business, I felt I had to play every week. At the same time, I felt that each time I teed up, I was impacting my value. I figured that if I don't make the cut, no one is going to pay me what they said they were going to pay me. It was a whirlwind of pressure, mismanaged, and before I knew it, it was like, OK, where am I?"

Throughout, he demonstrated a special ability to endure. Sadly, it would be further tested by the death of his father. "My dad had a great understanding of me," says Rose, taking a long breath. "He would just look into my eyes and either leave me alone because I was ready, or decide if I needed something from him. I remember he gave me a great talk before I played with Tiger in the first round at the [2002] Open at Muirfield. It was a big deal because Tiger had won the first two majors, and there was a lot of hype.

It came at a time when my dad was obviously not healthy, and he just said, 'We've faced far tougher things in our life than this round of golf.' It was sad, but it was also inspiring, and it gave me so much perspective. I played really well and shot 68. I always remember that lesson.

Justin Rose,
Jaime Diaz
Subscribe to Golf Digest
Subscribe today