AUGUSTA, Ga. – Congratulations to Justin Rose for regaining golf’s No. 1 world ranking. I guess he did a better job of not playing over the weekend than Dustin Johnson, who had been No. 1 and also did not compete. Rose just plain out-idled him.
We can discuss the Official World Golf Ranking’s inherent flaws another time (but let’s not and say we did). It’s just politics; it’s just business.
Rose is not going to be The Big Buzz of this week’s Masters Tournament. There are two candidates for that job.
One is Rory McIlroy, who is trying to complete the career Grand Slam … again. I know I’m supposed to be far more excited about that than I am. The problem is, winning a Masters is big enough for any golfer, so knocking out the career slam is a nice perk. Wearing a green jacket for a first time is better. Plus, the Masters is the most devious putting test ever devised this side of miniature golf. What is the weakest part of McIlroy’s game? Putting. But Sergio Garcia overcame that to win here in 2017.
The other Big Buzz nominee retired the trophy: Tiger Woods. He’s the biggest buzz everywhere he plays, just about everywhere he shows up.
So, Rose isn’t going to be on the tip of your tongue come Thursday morning because the world’s media will feed you non-Rose flavors.
This is the point of Rose’s career – he’s 38 – where we find out whether he’s going to be a truly great player in history or just another very, very good player. He’s got a U.S. Open championship on his resume, but at the moment, I’d rank him No. 1 on my list of the Best Players Who Have Won Only One Major, edging out Johnson (again), Justin Thomas, Francesco Molinari, Henrik Stenson and Jason Day.
Fred Couples won one major title and made the World Golf Hall of Fame. So did Ian Woosnam and Lanny Wadkins. So there’s more to a career than majors. As Larry Nelson, a three-time major champion, once explained about the lack of respect he got, “Winning a major is a big deal but only if you’re a guy who is supposed to win majors.”
Nelson wasn’t seen as one in his time. Rose is and has been ever since he holed out on the 72nd hole of the 1998 British Open as a 17-year-old amateur and was regarded as the biggest young star since another British teen, soon-to-be-king Arthur, is said to have pulled a sword out of a rock.
Rose is a player who is supposed to win majors and, perhaps, a player who is supposed to win a Masters. Ernie Els, Greg Norman, Johnny Miller and Tom Weiskopf were, too. None of them succeeded. Rose already has had some chances and has posted a number of low rounds at Augusta National. In other words, if you happen to be in a Masters betting pool of some kind, Rose is a high-round draft choice.
“I was leading through two rounds in 2004, I think it was, shot a great first round, backed it up with a good second round and then shot 81 on the third day,” Rose said. “That was obviously disappointing, but it taught me a lot about this golf course – how to play it, how not to play it and how it can trick you and bully you at times.”
Here’s a stat nugget for your wagering counselor: Rose’s finishes in the past seven Masters, starting in 2012, are eighth, 25th, 14th, second, 10th, second and 12th. That most recent runner-up was a playoff loss to Garcia. So, he’s been all over this tournament like slobber on a St. Bernard.
The Garcia loss was the first close loss for Rose in a major championship, his first heartbreaker.
“I took comfort in the fact that you can’t get through a career without something like that happening,” he said. “You’re not the first, you won’t be the last, so just get on with it. That was my attitude, and I never woke up and felt like it was a hole in my heart.”
That is just the kind of resilient attitude a Masters champion should have. He just isn’t a Masters champion yet. Although there’s nothing wrong with being a U.S. Open champion. Not a thing.
“I’d love to say the word multiple,” Rose said when asked about winning majors. “I’ve got one. I’ve seen some guys go through a career and not be able to get that elusive first major. No doubt it’s a gap in any career if you don’t get it done. I’d love to say multiple and keep trying to push the boundaries from there.”
It is obviously difficult to win one major, even more challenging to win two. Then players come along such as McIlroy, who racked up four pretty quickly, one with a record score and a second by a record margin; Jordan Spieth, whose three titles include two in a year in which he chased hard after a single-year Grand Slam; and Brooks Koepka, a relative newcomer who blew past the veterans by claiming three of the past seven majors.
Is this the week when Rose separates himself from the long list of one-hit-wonder major winners?
He seems irked that he played three bad rounds in a row this spring, spanning the weekend of the Arnold Palmer Invitational and the first round of the Players Championship, and he has been working extra hard since then. That work is starting to pay off, he said, but every player is optimistic about the state of his game, or should be.
Rose also is getting his regular caddie back. Mark Fulcher took three months off to recover from heart surgery in January and is back on Rose’s bag. If Rose gets into contention this week, you can count on the TV media – OK, all of us – to flog that tale.
A lot of factors point toward Rose as a potential winner. But as I’m writing this story Monday afternoon, I’m looking out the press-palace windows at gusting winds and heavy rain pelting Augusta National. The course closed because of the storm, in fact. So anything I think on Monday might be made irrelevant by Thursday’s playing conditions.
And who’s No. 1 in the rankings doesn’t mean that much, either.
“I felt like I haven’t had my run yet where I’ve sort of separated myself as the No. 1 player in the world,” Rose said. “That’s a goal of mine, still. The weeks that I am No. 1, it’s really cool. D.J. [Johnson] has predominately been No. 1 in the last year and a half. If anyone’s been dominant right now, it’s been Rory the last couple of months.”
I can say this about the race to No. 1 with certainty this week: Rose and Johnson will not be idle again.
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle