BETHESDA, Md. – Justin Rose’s eyes were hidden by sunglasses as he came off the 18th green at Congressional Country Club on Saturday, but there wasn’t much doubt that they were smoldering with some anger.
He had just bogeyed the treacherous par-4 finishing hole, which took the edge off momentum-building birdies at 16 and 17 and dropped him from one shot out of the lead to – before the day was over – three shots behind Patrick Reed after 54 holes of the Quicken Loans National.
“Made a really good up-and-down at 16 (for birdie) and a good birdie at 17,” he said shortly after signing for an even-par 71. “I felt like I was competing really well. It was disappointing to finish like that at the last. It’s a little challenging when they put the tees back and forth and back and forth. From the up tee you feel like you’re hitting it down the left tree line – dangerously left – and I just bailed out a little bit.”
Even after that last bogey, Rose will go into Sunday tied for fifth on a leaderboard that has no other major championship winners among the top 10 and only one other player – Marc Leishman, who is a shot ahead of Rose – who has ever contended late on Sunday at a major.
“I really enjoy this kind of golf course,” Rose said. “I love this kind of golf where eight or 10 under is probably going to win. If you play well the way I did (Friday) you’ll get rewarded. If you make a mistake, you’ll probably pay for it. The best thing you can do is accept the mistake and move on.”
The only time Rose didn’t do that Saturday was on the vexing 11th hole, when he missed his drive left and, instead of laying up and accepting a bogey, tried to get the ball on the green. He found a bunker, made double bogey and admitted later he’d forgotten his mantra.
Everyone knows that Rose plays well on difficult courses. He proved that once and for all a year ago at Merion when he was the last man standing at a U.S. Open in which no one matched par for 72 holes. Winning that Open put Rose in a different category of player and a different category of celebrity. He has handled the celebrity flawlessly. The golf has been a little more difficult. He hasn’t won since Merion.
“It’s a longer spell than I’d like but I’ve had chances,” he said. “It’s not like this is the first chance I’ve had for a while. I know I’ll have a chance in the near future again, too. I know that if I’m playing well, I’ll create plenty of chances. I feel like my season is only really beginning to get going. I feel comfortable with my game for the first time so I’m not putting too much pressure on myself.”
Rose defines the phrase, ‘gentle man.’ He has dealt with triumph and disaster throughout his golf career and followed Kipling’s advice and treated the two imposters the same.
Well, almost. There was no doubting the joy his victory at Merion gave him although, unlike Graeme McDowell and Rory McIlroy, who were made Members of The British Empire (MBE’s) after their major championship wins, Rose still hasn’t received that honor.
“Doesn’t really bother me,” he said, smiling. “But it would certainly be a nice honor.”
For a long time Rose was known primarily as the 17-year-old who finished fourth in the British Open at Royal Birkdale in 1998 after holing out from left of the green for a birdie on the 72nd hole and then turned pro and missed his first 21 cuts. Even after he had become a very successful pro, it appeared that might be his enduring legacy. When 19-year-old Englishman Matthew Fitzpatrick was paired with Rose for the first two rounds of the U.S. Open earlier this month, he was asked what he knew of Rose’s performance at Birkdale.
“To be honest, what I know more about are the 21 missed cuts,” he said. “No offense to Justin but that’s what I remember most.”
Rose doesn’t take offense to that but he does remember it. He was more than happy when his legacy changed forever after his victory at Merion. He has also put his new-found celebrity to very good use. Several years ago, he and his wife Kate started “Blessings in a Backpack” in Orlando – where they now live – to help provide nutritious food for homeless kids. Since the Open they have started the “Kate and Justin Rose Foundation,” which has built on "Blessings in a Backpack,” and now feeds 1,600 kids every weekend.
Rose turned down a request Saturday to sit in the CBS booth after he finished playing, saying he and Kate had plans for the evening and needed to get going. No doubt that was true. But it was also pretty clear that he wanted to get what became a very difficult golf course late Saturday behind him and get ready for Sunday.
What Rose wants most right now is to be ready to play in the Open Championship in three weeks. He has never finished higher there than that fourth-place finish. And, while he knows that a strong finish on Sunday will give him a nice confidence boost when he heads to Europe next week, he would very much like to end the 12-months-plus winless spell.
In two weeks he’s planning to play the Scottish Open, something he hasn’t done in past years. “Phil (Mickelson) winning there and then winning at Muirfield last year got my attention,” he said, smiling. “I figure it’s worth giving it a try and see what happens.”
Maybe if the formula works and Rose wins in Liverpool he will get the Royal Family’s attention and finally get that MBE. He is certainly worthy of it.