PEBBLE BEACH — Will the real Justin Rose please stand up?
When he won the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion, the now-38-year-old Englishman hit three out of every four fairways and seven out of 10 greens in the “correct” number of strokes. It was, true to his long-time reputation, a brilliant display between tees and greens.
Six years later, Rose is seven under par at halftime of the 119th U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, one stroke back of Gary Woodland after the end of play on Friday. Great scoring, it goes without saying. But here’s the thing. Even during his best-of-the-day opening-round 65, Rose has performed at a level below the field average in both driving accuracy and GIR. So far, he has missed 12 of 28 fairways and hit only 19 of 36 greens. Hardly what one expects from one of the most orthodox, aesthetically pleasing swings in the game.
So it is that one of the game’s consummate ball-strikers is scoring with his short shots. Over the first 36 holes he has used his putter only 49 times; seven times out of eight he has needed only two shots to get his ball into the hole from greenside bunkers.
“My short game has been really, really strong this week,” Rose confirmed. “I’ve made a lot of putts inside 10 feet. I’ve managed my game really well. I’ve missed it in the wrong spots. I’ve always given myself an opportunity to salvage something out of every hole I’ve played. And I haven’t compounded any mistakes so far.”
All of which sounds—strategy and course management-wise—like your typical Justin Rose, a man ideally suited to the unique rigors of what the USGA likes to call the game’s ultimate test. Then again, nothing in golf is ever completely clear cut. In an championship that one might assume is a perfect match for the strengths of his game, Rose has managed to miss the cut five times in 13 attempts and amass only three top-10s alongside his 2013 victory. Perhaps most surprising is that, the last time the U.S. Open visited Pebble Beach, Rose was at home watching on television, having failed to qualify.
This season hasn’t exactly gone to plan either, at least in the majors. At the Masters, Rose missed the halfway cut for the first time in his career. And last month at Bethpage he was an anonymous T-29 by end of play in the PGA Championship.
“The Masters was a disappointment,” admitted Rose in his U.S. Open press conference. “I definitely felt like I got my preparation wrong running into that event. I played decent stuff at the PGA though. Not my best, but it wasn’t far off. And here we are. I feel like I’m trending in a much better direction now than I was in April. I’m more positive, for sure. I’m here to do my work as well as I can.”
So we can’t say we weren’t warned. If Rose had a boss, it’s safe to say he or she would so far be rather pleased with their employee’s two-day job. As is Rose himself. While he may have expended five shots more on Friday compared to Thursday, he claimed to have hit the ball better during his second-round 70 than his record-tying opening 65. Five putts more (27 versus 22) explain the difference.
All of which does not augur well for the other challengers on the leader board. Should Rose add to his so-far sure touch on and around the greens with more characteristic ball-striking, he is going to be very difficult to beat over the weekend.
He seems to think so, too.
“I’m starting to find that extra gear with the iron play and hit the right shots into the right pin placements, which is what I’ve always done when I’ve won tournaments,” he said. “You have to do that to access tough pin placements with firm greens. If you are going to win golf tournaments like this one you've got to play well.
“If someone had asked if I would accept seven under after 36 holes, I would have asked if that was the final offer. But I would have taken it for sure. I’m happy. I’m in the perfect position going into the weekend. I’m in contention.”
Indeed. That much is clear and not exactly surprising for a golfer ranked fourth in the world. But take a closer look at his play over the last couple of days and what happens to and for Rose over the weekend is clearly anyone’s guess.