PEBBLE BEACH — Justin Rose has not been his normal self at this week’s U.S. Open. He’s struggling to keep it in the fairway, hitting just 57 percent on the week to rank T-54 among the field. He’s missing more greens than he’s accustomed, finding only half in 54 holes, ranking T-41. And during Saturday’s third round, he had another “where-did-that-come-from” moment on the par-3 fifth hole, when he shanked a bunker shot. That he trails Gary Woodland by one stroke, sitting at 10 under par after rounds of 65-70-67 heading into Sunday at Pebble Beach, seems a bit outrageous given the way he’s looked.
To his credit, his putting has a lot to do with the fact that he’s playing in the final twosome of another major. As unusual as it is for Rose’s ball-striking to be off the way it has, he has compensated by being fourth in strokes gained on the greens, making the possibility of winning a second U.S. Open title appear very real.
“Putting definitely has been, to coin an American phrase, the MVP for sure,” Rose said. “I felt like the putter, with my preparation for the greens this week, has been good. And I'm reading the greens really well. I'm seeing the lines. The putter is behaving.”
But judging from the words that are coming out of his mouth, something else is going on, too. There is a confidence about Rose that seems oddly fascinating, something that’s allow him to not be shaken by the disappointing play from tee to green. In speaking to the media on Saturday night, Rose sounded like a man who wasn’t trailing by one but leading by four. Seemingly every question posed to him was met with a response that would have sports psychologists nodding in approval.
“I’m in great position going into tomorrow,” Rose said. “One back gives me the freedom to feel like I’ve got everything to gain, nothing to lose. It’s always a position that—it doesn’t mean I have to approach the day any differently, if I was one ahead. I’m close enough that I have to build my plan, build my round of golf, be disciplined.
“I'm not chasing, really,” he added. “I'm so close to Gary that I have to go out and play my game tomorrow.”
Even when he was asked about the shot on the fifth hole, Rose quickly offered an explanation that made it seem like the miscue didn’t even happen.
“I’m playing such a high-challenge shot there, leaving it in the front right bunker is a tough place to do,” Rose explained. “I was trying to play like a karate chop on the back of the ball. I was trying to take a quarter of inch of sand there and try to nip it out to give myself a little bit of spin to try and leave it within six feet of the hole. So very high-challenge shot, and didn’t come off, clearly. But very lucky how it popped up to the top of the bunker and a decent lie.”
That Rose has won a major championship already, along with the Olympic gold medal in 2016, gives him reason to think he will be prepared for the moment here on Sunday. He’s also been in the thick of it at other majors, most notably his clash with Sergio Garcia at the 2017 Masters. That outcome, a playoff defeat, wasn’t what he hoped for, but it also doesn’t seem to appear to have hurt his psyche.
Meanwhile, the good vibes from his Open victory in 2013 are energizing him.
“I wasn't afraid to lose [at Merion], and that's probably a good mindset going into tomorrow,” Rose said. “It gives you the freedom to play your best. I three-putted 16 on Sunday, and I could hear all Phil's movements on the back nine, based on the crowd. That three-putt, I let it rush off me. I didn't get frustrated. I didn't think I'd blown my chance to win.
“So just kind of kept moving, one foot in front of another. And I think that will be my mentality tomorrow to walk through the finish line, to play the 72nd hole with the intention if we need to go to the first hole, just one shot at a time and grind away.”