From the depths of the professional abyss Justin Rose had carved out an impressive career since those dark post-Royal Birkdale days when he couldn’t make a putt or a cut. He’d won a European Tour Order of Merit, finished inside the top 10 on the PGA Tour 28 times and has a 3-1-0 Ryder Cup record.
But that maiden PGA Tour title had eluded him like sunny days dodge Muirfield Village in June. That what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, or so the worn-out bromide goes, but, in Rose’s case, it had left behind a decade’s worth of mental scar tissue.
“He’s done so much on full talent,” said Dr. Gio Valiante, a sports psychologist who began working with the Englishman about three weeks ago. “I was really surprised how much he really didn’t understand about winning.”
Rose roared from four strokes behind fresh-faced phenom Rickie Fowler on a wind-blown afternoon with birdies at Nos. 7, 8 and 9 to turn just a shot back, scrambled for par at the 10th hole and didn’t look back, to say nothing of looking at a leaderboard.
The new-and-improved Rose, armed with enough psycho-babble clichés to make a Chicago Cubs fan feel good about themselves, is finally a PGA Tour winner, having played his final 20 holes bogey-free for an 18-under 270 total and a three-stroke victory over Fowler.
How good was Rose’s closing 66 in swirling winds compared with, say, Ricky Barnes’ ball-in-hand 62 on Saturday? “With a victory on the line I think it’s the best round of the week,” said Sean O’Hair, who played with Rose on Sunday.
For Rose the victory was equal parts validation and vindication.
“You start to sometimes wonder why you can’t get it done?” said Rose, who had finished runner-up on Tour three times, including a tie for second in 2008 at Muirfield Village.
Even on the eve of his American drought-buster Rose was haunted by the notion that he seemed destined to come up short again as Fowler entered the final turn a field goal clear and cruising. So much so Valiante fired his newest charge a check-list text message to steady the ship. The first item: “Make it a day of patience.”
Those words must have been echoing in his head as he stood on the 16th tee waiting to tee off when the crowd surrounding the par-5 15th green erupted.
“I thought, here we go again,” Rose admitted.
It was an eagle, as Rose had feared, but by the other Ricky, Barnes who holed out his second approach shot of the week from 89 yards for an eagle-3. But Rose still delivered, rifling his tee shot to 12 feet for birdie and a 2-up lead.
The outcome, however, had been all but decided three holes earlier when Fowler, who had led from the outset following an opening 65, blocked his 5-iron tee shot at the demanding 12th hole into a water hazard.
Within 10 minutes the Memorial Tournament went from a potentially epic showdown to simply the Rose show thanks to a few words you don’t normally hear from Tour champions on Sunday: “provisional” (Phil Mickelson at the 15th hole) and “drop zone” (Fowler and Barnes at the 12th).
Like that Jack’s hardware was headed back to Orlando, Fla., and young Fowler was left to mull another near-miss. On the 14th tee box Fowler slumped onto a bench next to his caddie – Donnie Darr, the Ohio State men’s golf coach and one of Fowler’s former coaches at Oklahoma State – and reached an epiphany well beyond his 21 years, “If you told me I’d have taken a lead to within nine holes on a Sunday I’d have been happy,” he told Darr.
Earlier this year in Scottsdale, Ariz., Fowler caught grief for laying up on a par 5 with the tournament on the line. To the mop-headed rookie’s credit he never laid down on Sunday in central Ohio.
It’s a testament to Fowler’s talent that his game, not his colorful garb or his head gear, dominated the conversation for the better part of 65 holes. The rookie set a 36-hole tournament record (131), led by three strokes after the second and third rounds and narrowly missed becoming the most recent member of the “Bomb-and-Gouge Generation” to steal the Tour spotlight.
Earlier on Sunday tournament host Jack Nicklaus offered a bit of foreshadowing to the day’s outcome when he said, “There are two things players need to learn to win, one is in the heart and one is in the head. You need both to win.”
Nicklaus’ sage words also seemed apropos for some of the more experienced members of his field.
The great World Ranking debate remains, well, debated after Woods and Mickelson played army golf at the 10th hole on Saturday, with the current No. 1 hitting out of bounds right and the would-be No. 1 going left into the trees, inbounds but off the grid.
On Saturday, the Rickies – Barnes’ 62 and Fowler’s stranglehold on the lead – silenced the Tour’s hierarchy, and the world Nos. 1 and 2 remained silent after their rounds, declining press interviews. Sunday, however, the duo showed signs of improvement, in their games and their long-term prognosis.
In their final U.S. Open tune-up the game’s alpha and omega had games that would best be described as works in progress, but for both the Memorial was progress.
For Mickelson he remained on the fringes of contention until a poor drive at the 15th hole on Sunday, left into a hazard, of course, and tied for fifth at 11 under, while Woods accomplished his stated goal of playing all four rounds following weeks of MC (Quail Hollow Championship) and WD (Players Championship), struggled with his distance control but otherwise looked as serviceable as he has all year.
“I felt like this week I hit some really good shots, shots that I had been lacking,” said an upbeat Woods following his closing 72 to tie for 19th. “I was still a little one-dimensional.”
For far too long Rose felt the same way, making steady progress since turning pro at the tender age of 17 but flummoxed by the slow track to Tour success. On Sunday he finally shed two titles, he’s no longer a phenom or a reclamation project.