He was sitting next to the trophy, but Justin Rose had to mention the “scar tissue” because it is so part of him, invisible but intrinsic. His scorecard says he won the U.S. Open over four grueling days last week at Merion Golf Club. His psyche says it took decades.
“This is a journey,” Rose said, the trophy on a table beside him. “This is just such a satisfying feeling, and it goes back 20, 30 years for me — of dreaming, of hoping, of practicing, of calloused hands. In a sense, this could be the most satisfying because there’s no one helping you along the way. You’ve had to do it the hard way. You’ve had to do it yourself.”
And you’ve had to do it in public.
Rose will come to Congressional Country Club in Bethesda for this week’s AT&T National a new man to the golfing public because he has been minted a major champion. In a field that lacks the injured Tiger Woods — sitting out with a strained left elbow — he is somehow now a marquee attraction, ranked third in the world. His galleries will be larger. His journey will be the same.
That journey created the scar tissue that helped win an Open and could propel him even further forward. He was just 17 when he contended at the British Open at Royal Birkdale outside Liverpool in his home country of England. Second at the midway point, fifth after three rounds, he closed by holing out a pitch shot on 18 that left him with a final-round 69, a tie for fourth, a place on the global golfing scene.
When that pitch shot went in, Rose doffed his cap to an adoring crowd and looked skyward. He was blessed. The next day, he turned pro. Twenty-one tournaments into his career, he hadn’t made a cut. Cue the scars, for years.
“We know that he couldn’t close,” said Gio Valiante, a sports psychologist who works with several PGA Tour players, Rose among them. “He would take the lead in a lot of events and start feeling that pressure. He didn’t know where it came from. It came from when he was 17, when the Open put him on the radar. Now, you’re not just failing. You’re failing in public. That’s a dangerous equation.”
It proved difficult to overcome. Royal Birkdale quickly became a memory. Trying to stay relevant became a task.
“When I was missing 21 cuts in a row, I mean, I was just trying to not fade away, really,” Rose said. “I just didn’t want to be known as a one-hit wonder, flash in the pan.
“I believed in myself inherently. Deep down, I always knew that I had a talent to play the game. And I simply thought that if I put talent and hard work together, surely it will work out in the end, in the long run.”
It has, though, been a long run. Rose righted himself well enough that by 2001 he made 28 of 33 cuts on the European Tour, and in 2002 he won twice. Five years later, he won the European Tour’s Order of Merit. He was still just 27. The next step, it seemed, would be to contend in — and win — majors.
It didn’t happen. Heading into the 2009 AT&T National, Rose was struggling, having missed five cuts in his previous seven tournaments, with no finishes better than 20th all year. That week, he began working with swing coach Sean Foley, who later would take on Woods as a pupil.
“It’s all about understanding,” Foley said, and there were different levels for Rose. First, he wasn’t flexible enough to do everything Foley wanted him to do with his swing. “He transformed his body,” Foley said. He began, too, absorbing Foley’s sometimes complex line of thinking. Rose missed only one cut the rest of that season, but he still didn’t contend much, and even though he had relocated to Orlando, he still hadn’t won on the PGA Tour. A year into his relationship with Rose, Foley called Valiante, also based in Orlando.
“According to Sean,” Valiante said, “he was swinging the club too good to be performing as badly as he was.”
So Rose and Valiante began picking at that scar tissue. Valiante divides golfers into two categories — mastery golfers and ego golfers, essentially a distinction between intrinsically and extrinsically motivated players. Most high-level players, he said, begin as mastery golfers.
“They play because they love the game,” Valiante said. “Then what happens, you start getting attention, accolades, trophies, and our motivation shifts. It’s an unconscious process. It’s not about the golf. It’s about what we get from the golf.”
So Rose worked to free himself from the results, to free himself from the past. In 2010, shortly after he began working with Valiante, he won the Memorial, his first PGA Tour victory. A month later, he led in Hartford headed into the final round, shot 75 on Sunday and tied for ninth. A long conversation with Valiante followed.
“Rather than get emotional,” Valiante said, “he relearned what happened.”
The next week, he won the AT&T National at Aronimink Golf Club outside Philadelphia. Through this time, he worked with Foley as well because while he has always had an exceptional swing, “He was probably a 6 out of 10 then,” Foley said.
“That’s good enough to contend. Now, he’s an 8.5, sometimes a 9. He can contend and win. It’s been a continuation of everything.”
The U.S. Open is the latest step in that continuation. He was not regarded — by his peers or the press — as a fluke of a champion. Phil Mickelson, who lost by two shots to finish second for the sixth time, might have been the people’s choice. Rose, though, is worthy.
“I think Justin, technically, is probably the best player in the game,” said Hunter Mahan, another Foley client who finished tied for fourth at Merion. “And I mean that from the putting to bunker game, short game, swing, everything he does — it’s definitely, I think, the best. It’s just so flawless when you see him and watch him play, and he makes the game look really easy sometimes.”
Except it’s anything but. The teenage Rose knows that. Heck, the late-20s Rose knows the same. Professional golf can strip players naked. But it also offers the strong, the diligent, a means to recover. That’s why Rose arrives at the AT&T National as a major champion.
“It just takes time to heal,” he said.