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Rose Reflects On Birkdale Feats

by Lewine Mair - July 10, 2017

It is 19 years since the then 17-year-old Justin Rose finished in a tie for fourth place behind Mark O’Meara in the 1998 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale. He will forever be remembered for that week of weeks along with, alas, the 21 missed cuts which marked the start of his professional career. “Justin Rose and Fell” was the clever if cruel headline which captured the sequence of events.

Yet if Birkdale prompted too much media interest in the player too soon, he has always been grateful for “that snapshot of my potential.”

In the wider sense, the week provided a similarly intriguing snapshot of what the game itself could offer. The teenage Justin made golf look young, engaging and fun as he shook hands with spectators, signed the odd autograph and winked at giggling girls from the adjacent Greenbank High School. There were moments when you hoped that the girls would be as smitten with the game as they were with the lad himself.

They may or may not have turned into golfers but you can safely say that not a few of them will be back to follow the Justin of 2017 – and to regale their families with tales of long ago.

Rose has two abiding memories. The first, of holing out his 45-yard pitch at the last for a birdie – a final flourish which could not have detonated more of a roar had he won the Claret Jug. It left him with a 69 and the 282 tally he needed to finish alongside Jim Furyk, Raymond Russell and Jesper Parnevik on a day when O’Meara defeated Brian Watts in a play-off and Tiger Woods was third. The second memory came shortly after he had signed his card. “When I walked into the restaurant,” he recalls, “I got a standing ovation. It was some moment. …”

As for Rose’s mother, Annie, she couples the holed pitch with her son’s feat in finishing second behind Thomas Levet in the previous week’s qualifying at next-door Hillside. Annie still entertains vivid pictures of the disbelieving look she shared with Margi, her daughter, and Ken, her late husband, when they realised Justin would be going on to Birkdale. “He was just so young for this to be happening.”

It is impossible to talk of that showstopper of a closing pitch at Birkdale without remembering the eagle-birdie finish to Rose’s second-round 66. For the purposes of the 547-yard 17th, he left his driver in the bag and knocked a 3-wood so high and so far on the back of the wind that he needed but a 7-iron to the green. A holed 10-footer took him to 3 under and the ensuing birdie to 4 under for the round. On 138, he was lying alongside Woods and Nick Price and one behind Watts. (He would be three behind after his third-round 75 before reigniting for that closing 69.)

In spite of his lack of experience at that level, Rose tells of something he could not have got more right at Birkdale – and which has served him well to this day. “The way I played over the four rounds was a model for playing freely,” he says. “I can honestly say that I stepped into every day and every shot with a free mind. There was never a point when I was concerned about the outcome of any of those shots.”

Intriguingly, Sir Michael Bonallack’s summation of Rose’s play at the Open debrief of ’98 was not too different from the player’s latest assessment. “He has this priceless ability to switch off between shots,” said the then secretary of the R&A. “Anyone who can do that is at a tremendous advantage as against players who have to concentrate flat out all the time.’’

If Rose, the junior from North Hants Golf Club outside London, was too young to win the Open at 17, he is by no means too old to achieve that feat at 36. After all, his great friend Sergio García was 37 when the two were involved in a play-off at this year’s Masters from which García emerged with a winning birdie at the first extra hole.

When Rose arrives back at Birkdale at the weekend, the thoughts which run through his mind might well include that day when he was a struggling candidate in a European Challenge Tour event at Hillside and had this urge to revisit the scene of his Birkdale heroics. He drove into the carpark, only when he drew to a halt he could not bring himself to get out of the car.

It was not until the 2008 Open at the club, by which time he had won four times on the European Tour, that the moment felt right. “Finally, I didn’t have the awful feeling of not having lived up to expectations. I felt I’d done enough to show that ’98 was not a flash in the pan.”

This admirable champion has furnished plenty in the way of evidence across the ensuing years – including, of course, that 2013 US Open victory and last year’s Olympic gold.


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