Rose absorbs harsh lessons to graduate in style
The US Open hero never lost faith on his long road to the top, says Dermot Gilleece
Fresh relevance was lent by events of last weekend to the 2007 US Masters, where golfing friends Justin Rose and Pádraig Harrington came down the stretch in the second-last pairing.
"We offered to jockey each other along until the 15th or 16th hole and if we were both going for it at that stage, then obviously it would get serious," recalled the newly-crowned US Open champion.
The serious battle they had hoped for, however, never materialised. Yet a seventh-place finish became a crucial building block towards Harrington's Major breakthrough at Carnoustie three months later, though for fourth-placed Rose there was still much to be learned.
As it happened, his challenge to Zach Johnson crumbled in a double-bogey on the 71st hole. And when his disappointment had eased, I remember relating to him the words of Nick Price, that he would be amazed at how easy it was to make the breakthrough, if only he let things happen.
Rose replied: "I can see exactly where Nick is coming from. It's clearly a mental game, because there's really no reason why it should be more difficult from any other tournament or round." That crucial, competitive truth had clearly been taken on board when, in his own words, his time finally came last Sunday.
The extent of Rose's comfort, of his complete control of competitive nerves, was especially evident in the execution of two glorious irons at Merion. The first of them was a five-iron to a treacherous back pin on the 246-yard 17th. Then came an unforgettable four-iron to the last, struck from a position only a few yards away from the plaque commemorating Ben Hogan's iconic one-iron of 1950.
Nick Faldo, of course, was England's previous winner of a Major, recording the sixth of them in his famous US Masters humbling of Greg Norman in 1996. But it was four years previously when he, too, hit climactic iron-shots destined to live in the memory.
They came at Muirfield, where the Open Championship returns next month. In response to the challenge of America's John Cook down the stretch, Faldo's first victory thrust was with a majestic four-iron second shot to the green to set up a birdie four at the long 550-yard 17th. And the other was an even better three-iron, superbly held onto the wind at the 448-yard 18th where, like Rose at Merion, it covered the flag all the way before coming to rest against the back fringe. And again like Rose, he gave himself no more than a tap-in for what proved to be a winning par.
"Justin's a classy guy," said Faldo. "No matter how many times he got knocked down, he still had self-belief."
Looking back on the decision by Rose and his late father, Ken, that he should turn professional within 24 hours of a fourth-place finish in the 1998 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, it is easy to criticise it as ill-conceived and hasty. As a callow youth of 17, his struggle through 21 successive missed cuts would tend to confirm such a view.
But life is never quite that simple. Michael Bonallack, secretary of the Royal and Ancient, said at the time: "Justin's been playing top-class amateur golf for two years and what is he going to learn from staying amateur any longer? He's got the game, so I don't think you can blame him. The good thing is that his father is acting as his manager. He's level-headed and will keep Justin's feet on the ground."
There was to be gain from Rose's pain during those early years, which included his father's death when he was only 21. And enduring love for his departed Dad was evident in tear-filled eyes turned towards heaven when the great deed was done. And magical Merion had delivered its latest hero.