If we’re going to be deprived of the visceral thrill of a Phil Mickelson U.S. Open triumph; if we’re going to be baffled silly by the ongoing major championship disappearance of former majordomo Tiger Woods; if we’re going to watch Merion bludgeon the world’s best players into a bloody, pulpy mess, then we will happily, enthusiastically embrace the only storyline remaining:
A classy, touching and fully-fitting win for Justin Rose, a first-time major champ about whom people wonder which is better – his golf swing, or the way he handles life and those he encounters.
Throw in similar sentiments for Adam Scott’s Masters win earlier this year, and we have a theme for our 2013 Majors: Likable, Gentlemanly, Deserving Players Only Need Apply.
It’s easy to get maudlin about Rose’s story, but an appropriate amount of sentiment isn’t the wrong thing to feel. Many of us have lost parents too soon, or have parents fading into the sunset. So, to see Rose – who lost his father, coach and caddie, Ken, at age 57 in 2002 – acknowledge his 70th and final stroke at Merion on Sunday with a kiss of the golf ball, a point to the sky, a shutting of his eyes, and a welling of tears was a powerful thing, indeed. He would later say it wasn’t lost on him that it was Father’s Day, and that he couldn’t help but think “my old Dad Ken had something to do with it.”
There was some serious blinking going on in the Murphy family living room around that time.
But, heartstrings are one thing. Golf is another.
If the golf gods wanted to play the emotional game full-bore, we’d have seen Philly Mick hold it together on the back nine Sunday, setting Merion askew with roars and cheers for the now-six-time runner-up at the U.S. Open, the ‘PHIL-adelphia Story’ climaxing with his first national open in dramatic style.
So, of course, in the end, it has to be about the golf at the U.S. Open. At Merion, where Ben Hogan striped the 1-iron, if you don’t have game, don’t bother showing up.
Justin Rose? The 5th-ranked player in the world? The guy who cut out Mickelson’s heart in the final three holes of the Ryder Cup Sunday singles last fall with putts as gutsy as the Medinah crowd was loud?
Yeah. Justin Rose has game. Tons of it. And it was never better – not when he won the Memorial in 2010, or at Cog Hill in the FedEx playoffs in 2011, or the WGC event at Doral last year – than on Sunday at Merion, when a penal USGA setup, a rough in which you could lose small children, suffocating pressure – and a mid-round rain storm, to boot – made for damn near impossible conditions.
Rose’s answer was that stone-cold assassin’s round of even-par 70, the best score by any player in the final four twosomes. Only Jason Day’s 71 came close. Other contenders like Charl Schwartzel (78), Steve Stricker (76), Billy Horschel (74) and, yes, Lefty himself (74) couldn’t come close to the golf Rose played.
Though Rose was listed as 9-to-1 as late as Sunday morning by oddsmakers, a savvy punter would have noted that Merion’s No. 1 demand was accuracy off the tee, and Rose, top-20 on Tour in accuracy, obliged, time and time again. He hit 42 of 56 fairways at the 2013 U.S. Open, tie-2nd in the field. Questions have dogged Rose about his putting under pressure, but he seems now to be coming to a place where his nerves and his stroke are joining forces. Just ask Phil from last year’s Ryder Cup. At Medinah, Rose did everything but go Sly-Stallone-in-“Cobra” on Lefty and say: “You’re a disease. … I’m the cure,” when he drained those monster putts right in Phil’s grill on 16, 17 and 18 to win that key point for Europe.
We can talk about Rose’s cross-country putt on No. 6 Sunday for birdie, or his this-might-be-my-day side-door job for bird on No. 7. We could talk even more about him hearing the roar for Mickelson’s hole-out eagle on No. 10, then answering by stuffing his approach on No. 12 for a kick-in birdie.
We could talk even more about his birdie on the short par-3 13th, a hole Mickelson bogeyed by flying the green. And we could talk even more about his keeping cool under fire, hitting iron off the tee on No. 15 when O.B. lurked, laughing at players down the left side. Rose made a savvy par by splitting that fairway. (That was a hole Lefty bogeyed with a wedge from 122 yards. Ouch.)
But really, when the winter rains come, and Rose is tossing another log on the Christmas fireplace and staring at the U.S. Open trophy as he sinks into a bottle of red wine, he might want to cue up the DVD to his 17th and 18th holes at Merion. That wicked par-3 17th hole, the 246-yard hole begging for a bogey, was tamed by Rose with a tee shot to about 10 feet, pin high, sitting up in the rough. He nearly chipped in, and he made par.
And then 18, with a one-shot lead, and the tee shot Johnny Miller called on NBC “the most important tee shot of his life” – to say Rose was fully committed to that drive would be to understate how intensely his golf swing melded with the moment, how his body did everything right under the most intense of pressures, how all his training and “childhood dreams,”as he would later say, produced one of the great drives you’d ever want to see on the 72nd hole of the U.S. Open. The center cut of the fairway seemed to say to Rose, “Yes, yes, that was pure. Let us place it right on our belly for you. Well done, good sir.”
He wasn’t done. Bogey remained a distinct possibility if he missed the green, or came up short, on the 521-yard beast. And it didn’t help that his playing competitor Luke Donald was fumbling around on the hole, leaving Rose to stand in the fairway, near the Hogan plaque, thinking about how his life led to that moment, how his father wasn’t here, how he much he missed him, and how much he wanted to make his two little kids proud, and himself proud and his Dad proud, and then finally, that golf swing – a 4-iron approach from 200-plus yards out that landed on the fat of the green and cozied to a nice spot on the back collar, some 12 feet from the cup.
Awesome golf, it was. He damn near jarred his 3-wood chip – another smart play – and tapped in for a par-par finish that was unmistakably brilliant. It was all so good he couldn’t contain himself. He surrendered to his emotions, and looked skyward. Surely, he felt something when he did, an otherworldly energy, and the sweet rush of a job well done.
Brian Murphy covered golf for the San Francisco Chronicle and now talks about sports in the mornings on KNBR Radio’s “Murph & Mac” show in the San Francisco Bay Area. This article is reprinted here with the written permission of Yahoo!.