News & Opinion

Rose seeks to validate his major chops

Rory McIlroy was assessing his chances at the U.S. Open this week as he identified a key to success: the start

PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Rory McIlroy was assessing his chances at the U.S. Open this week as he identified a key to success: the start.

“I do think there is a 65 out there, and it would be nice if I’m the one who gets off to a fast start for a change,” McIlroy said.

He was right on one count. There was, indeed, a 65 out there. But it wasn’t for McIlroy to get; it belonged to Justin Rose. Six years removed from his U.S. Open victory at Merion in 2013, adjusting to an emotional change on his bag, Rose is the one who has hit the California coast running.

“I wouldn't say it's exhilarating, because I feel like my mindset is I am in a 72-hole tournament,” Rose said. “This is just a very small step towards an outcome. So you don't feel like that buzz that you would on a Sunday, but you can't help but look around over your shoulder, and [think], Damn, this is Pebble Beach.”

Playing in a U.S. Open at Pebble Beach for the first time in his career, the 38-year-old Englishman found the 65 that McIlroy was seeking on Thursday, tying Tiger Woods’ record opening score from 2000. To show it was no fluke, Rose buffered his card with a 1-under 70 on Friday, clearly establishing his leaderboard presence (scores).

And why shouldn’t Rose be a threat? He has been a contending machine over the past two PGA Tour seasons, with 11 top 10s in 2018 and five more in 2019. He has No. 4 standing in the Official World Golf Ranking and is respected as one of the best ball-strikers in the game.

What he doesn’t have is provenance, the kind of trophy collection that sets him apart. What he doesn’t have is a second major title. What’s missing is the double-down that establishes him as more than a one-trick pony.

When he won at Merion, Rose started the third round in third place on the board. When he begins today at Pebble Beach, he will be two strokes behind leader Gary Woodland. He acknowledged that the view from up top is more comfortable.

“You're going to make mistakes in the U.S. Open, but if you have a reason to stay patient, I think it's a lot easier to let those mistakes roll off your back and continue doing what you've been doing to get on top of the leaderboard,” Rose said. “There's more than one way to skin the cat, but I prefer this way.”

Rolling just 21 putts in his first round, Rose birdied his last three to go to a 6 under and assume the pole position. Of course, he had plenty of company in red numbers on Thursday as eagles flew, birdies abounded and 39 players finished under par. When the course stiffened on Friday, Rose did not back off. He covered two bogeys with three more birdies.

And while he wasn’t as efficient on the greens – 27 putts the second time around – he got up and down when he needed to, he made key birdies (after starting on the back nine) at Nos. 15, 18 and 2 and put frustrating bogeys at Nos. 1 and 4 behind him. He kept the lid on … at a time when he might have thought otherwise.

Justin Rose
Justin Rose (left) and caddie Gareth Lord have risen into contention at the U.S. Open.

For the first time in 11 years, he is operating without Mark Fulcher on his bag, the caddie who helped Rose win at Merion and win the 2016 Olympic gold medal in Rio. Fulcher underwent heart surgery in January. When Rose won the Farmers Insurance Open in late January, he did so with Gareth Lord on the bag.

Afterward, Rose dedicated the victory to Fulcher. “Fooch, that was for you, mate,” Rose said in his news conference. “I’m sure watching us all weekend was harder than the heart surgery . . . Love you, and we’ll see you soon.”

Fulcher was back when Rose missed the cut in the Masters. He carried when Rose tied for 29th at the PGA. It was too soon, and Rose and Fulcher knew it. For the Memorial, a change was made as Fulcher went home to spend more time recuperating and Lord returned.

“I stay in constant contact with Fulch,” said Rose, who finished 13th at Memorial. “Obviously he's one of my best friends, and … like maybe he came back too soon. The Masters was a huge goal for him, as it was for us. And I think we all come back too soon from an injury or whatever it might be.

“And in some ways, he took the decision to take a step back, to be honest with you. So obviously, wish him the best and back to full fitness. We stay in constant contact. He's great friends with Lordy. Between the three of us, we'll be staying in contact. No one knows what the future holds, but all options are in play going forward.”

That said, the immediate future includes 36 holes this weekend at Pebble Beach, with a chance to win another U.S. Open. To that end, Rose is in capable hands. Lord was on the bag for Henrik Stenson at the 2016 British Open, and that worked out pretty well. At Royal Troon, Stenson shot a record aggregate score of 264 and became the second player to shoot a final-round 63 to win a major. The other 63 came from Johnny Miller at the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont.

And the best part is, fast start notwithstanding, Rose believes it can get better.

“I've made a lot of putts inside 10 feet,” he said. “I’ve managed my game really well. I've missed it in the wrong spots. I've always given myself an opportunity to salvage something out of every hole I've played. And I haven't compounded any mistakes so far.

“But I still don’t feel like I’m cooking. I need to find another gear.”

Dan O’Neill, who covered golf for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 1989 to 2017, is an editorial consultant on golf for Fox Sports. His articles have appeared in publications such as Golfweek, Golf World, Golf.com and The Memorial magazine. Email: dan13153@gmail.com; Twitter: @WWDOD