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The 4-iron struck from the fairway on the 18th was pure – possibly the best of his life. It trickled down past the hole, missing it by an inch or two, coming to rest in the first cut just off the green. Using his 3-wood, he caressed the ball smoothly back up the green to where it finished hole-high, about two inches from the cup. As he putted out, Justin Rose knew he had all but won the US Open.
What happened next was a moving tribute to a special person in Rose’s life – his late father Ken. Looking up, with finger pointing to the heavens, Rose remembered his dearly beloved father, mentor and golf coach, who passed away in September 2002, a victim of cancer at age 57. By the time playing partner Luke Donald had putted out, tears were flowing freely down Rose’s cheeks. A congratulatory embrace from Donald followed. Father’s Day is a big deal in the US.
There were still two playing groups to finish, but only Phil Mickelson, one shot behind and yet to play the devilishly hard 18th, could catch him. When Mickelson’s chip and run birdie attempt failed, all doubt was removed. Justin Rose was US Open Champion.
Rose, who beat Phil Mickelson and Jason Day by two shots with a one-over total of 281, was just five when his parents took him from South Africa to the UK. From about that time, father Ken was Justin’s only golf coach – right up until age 17. That was when Justin holed from 50 yards at the last, at the 1998 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, to finish in a tie for fourth. He won the low amateur’s silver medal. The following day he turned professional and proceeded to miss 21 consecutive cuts. That was 15 years ago.
“I couldn’t help but look up to the heavens and think my old man Ken had something to do with this,” the newly crowned champion said. “What a day, I just kept telling myself that bogeying is what everyone is doing. You just have to finish it off. What a beautiful setting it was at the 18th. I thought, ‘This is my moment.’ I’ve seen that Ben Hogan photograph a million times. I just tried not to get too ahead of myself and hit a beautiful 4-iron to the green. With it being Father’s Day – I was just trying to remember my dad. I don’t know what to say, I’m thrilled.”
Rose is the first Englishman to win the US Open in 43 years – a feat last achieved by Tony Jacklin in 1970. That he managed an even-par last round, in the most demanding of golfing tests, is a tribute to not only his golfing skills but also his immense fortitude. His grit was evidenced more than once with hecklers making reference to his dead father – as they did during his epic singles battle with Mickelson in last year’s Ryder Cup. Rose’s come-from-behind victory in that match was marked by a miraculous par-save on 16, followed by birdies on 17 and 18 to win the match. One could say a similar thing occurred during the last round at Merion.
It’s well known that the USGA sets up its open courses such that they want par to represent a good score. Many critics thought their plans would be thwarted here at Merion, due to its lack of length. Through a combination of narrow fairways, thick rough and difficult pin placements, par proved an excellent score. Rose’s winning score of 1-over par, two shots better than the joint runner-ups Mickelson and Day is testament to that.
Watching professional golfers acknowledging the applause of the galleries is a common sight on tour. What was different at Merion was observing the pros thanking the crowd for their applause after posting bogey – it was that tough. Some pros liked it, others didn’t. The layout was designed to meet the USGA’s requirement that their open championship test every club in the competitor’s bag. It certainly did that.
Merion, a golf club steeped in history, is indeed a grand venue for a US Open. This is not a course where golfers can blast away with their high-tech clubs and modern ball. The fears that technology would shrink Merion have proven unfounded. Only the purist of ball-strikers prevailed this week.
Undoubtedly the crowd favourite during the last round was Phil Mickelson, and rightly so. No golfer gives as much time and recognition to the fans as does Mickelson. And no golfer has had as many close finishes in US Open history as now six-time runner-up, Phil. “For me, it’s heart-breaking,” he said. “I’m now 43 and this week was my best opportunity.” It was also his birthday. Perhaps it just wasn’t meant to be.
Occasionally the greatest prizes go to the most deserving souls. Happy Father’s Day, Ken.