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Underdog Rose battles Merion for first major

Justin Rose
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ARDMORE, Pa. – One half-expected Justin Rose to sprint up the hill to Merion’s 18th hole Rocky-style, arms hoisted high, triumph etched into his face, but then comparing the East Course to Apollo Creed is a disservice to the old maid.

For the 113th U.S. Open, she played the part of Ivan Drago, the Russian thug who pummeled the Philly hero in 'Rocky IV.'

Balboa, however, would be the perfect cinematic metaphor for Rose, a soft-spoken 32-year-old who wrested himself from a competitive abyss to claim one of the game’s most coveted prizes.

He missed 21 consecutive cuts to begin his career, played six full years on the PGA Tour without a victory and endured every blow Merion and a mixed bag of Open contenders could throw at him on Sunday. But as bright sunshine brought the East Course’s 18th green to life late Sunday Rose emerged from 18 rounds, eh – holes – battered but better than any other.

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Just 10 minutes earlier that storybook ending seemed very much in doubt.

In a round that featured 19 lead changes and five different players who held a share of the lead throughout a frenzied day, Rose’s maiden major was in doubt until the last chip, a climbing attempt by Mickelson from 30 yards short of the 18th green that raced by the hole and relegated Lefty to bridesmaid status – again.

“I kept trying to commit to golf shots. That's all I can do. You can't worry about what Phil is doing or what other guys are doing,” said Rose, who closed with a 70 to finish at 1 over par and a shot ahead of Mickelson and Jason Day.

“I felt like I got my momentum back on the stretch of (Nos.) 14 to 18. I felt like it gave me a little bit of wiggle room coming down the stretch, which I think everybody needed on this golf course.”

Not that Rose paid much attention to the chaotic comings and goings on Sunday. Before arriving at Merion the Englishman sent his caddie Mark Fulcher a picture of a tunnel, which was hanging on a wall in his house.

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“I thought it was a wonderful idea,” Fulcher said. “Simply staying in the middle of the tunnel. If you move out of the tunnel only bad things can happen. I said I’d follow him. We just envisioned finishing the 18th hole and walking right over to (No.) 1 and swiping a 3-wood down there and just keep going.”

It was the perfect tonic for a topsy-turvy week that began under threatening skies and the enigma that is Merion, outside the Open rotation for more than three decades, and ended in the flurry of a fluid final-round leaderboard.

Mickelson began the day clinging to a one-stroke advantage, played Nos. 3-5 in 3 over par – including two double bogeys and a birdie – and played catch-up the rest of the way.

Lefty, now a six-time runner-up at his national championship, seemed to grab the momentum when he banged his approach from the right rough off the pin at the 10th and into the hole for eagle to move back into the lead at even par.

“It put me right up on the lead and right at even par where I thought would be the winning score, and I had a couple of birdie opportunities with 11, 12 and 13 coming up,” said Mickelson, who closed with a 74 and has now broken par just once on 21 Open Sundays.

As Rose was walking down the 12th fairway he heard the roar Mickelson’s miracle shot stirred and embarked on a lengthy debate with Fulcher about whether Lefty had made birdie or eagle. A glance at the leaderboard above the 12th told the story, and Rose – the first Englishman to win the Open since Tony Jacklin in 1970 – answered with an approach to 2 feet to tie Lefty at even.

And on it went, for the next six holes Day, Hunter Mahan, Mickelson and Rose took turns holding, then releasing, the lead.

By the time the field had crossed back over Ardmore Avenue the Open had turned into a ball-striker’s ball – with Rose, Mahan, Day and Mickelson ranking third, 11th, 61st and 92nd, respectively, in that category this season.

Mahan blinked first, making double bogey at the 15th hole, followed by Day, who made bogey at No. 14, and finally Phil, who made a sloppy bogey at the 122-yard 13th hole and followed that with another at the 15th.

Mickelson’s chances to win the major that has eluded him his entire career essentially ended at the 16th when he missed an uphill 8-footer for birdie. The Open that finally appeared to be aligned for Lefty slipped away for good with a drive fanned left into the trees at the 72nd hole. All that was missing was a corporate tent and a trash bin.

But this wasn’t Winged Foot, where some would say Mickelson booted his best chance at winning an Open, but this one hurt, nonetheless.

“For me it's very heartbreaking. This could have been a really big turnaround for me on how I look at the U.S. Open and the tournament that I'd like to win, after having so many good opportunities,” said Mickelson, who made headlines earlier in the week when he flew home to attend his daughter’s eighth-grade graduation and returned on a red-eye flight on Wednesday and arrived in Philadelphia about three hours before his Thursday tee time.

“But this one's probably the toughest for me, because at 43 and coming so close five times. Except I just keep feeling heartbreak.”

Tiger Woods could sympathize with Mickelson’s Open frustration. His Grand Slam drought has now run to five years and counting following a third-round 76 and a tie for 32nd. The world No. 1 last hoisted a Grand Slam keepsake at the 2008 U.S. Open, an inexplicable run regardless of injury or inconsistent play.

“I struggled with the speed, especially right around the hole, putts were breaking a lot more, I gave it a little more break and then it would hang,” said Woods, whose 13-over total is his highest card at the Open when he’s played all 72. “That's kind of the way it was this week.”

Woods’ claim that poor pace on the greens led to his pedestrian week is supported by his tie for 53rd in total putts (1.78 putting average). But then many in this week’s field could attest to similar confusion on Merion’s contoured putting surfaces.

After a 32-year hiatus from major championship golf, the grande dame proved to still be up to the challenge of Grand Slam golf. For the week, the East Course played more than 4 ½ strokes over par (74.552 scoring average) and Rose’s 1-over-par winning tally may not be what USGA executive director Mike Davis envisioned – just ask him, he will tell you – but it certainly wasn’t a disappointment.

Merion proved to be the brute she was billed to be, playing the role of Ivan Drago to perfection and leaving a wake of the world’s best bruised and battered for a TKO; while Rose was perfectly cast as Rocky, resilient and ruthless until the very end.

As he hoisted the Open chalice over his head late Sunday, the resemblance was not lost on the Philly phanatics. They may have wanted Mickelson to shed his major monkey, but they could appreciate Rose for what he was – the champion.