ARDMORE, Pa. – Justin Rose made his first trip to Merion Golf Club the week before the U.S. Open, when he had an opportunity to get acquainted 1-on-1 without the distractions of crowds or media.
Rose bonded with the East Course through three practice rounds that week, then strengthened that link during the run-up to the Open. The preparation and knowledge paid off Sunday in the intense final round when Rose fashioned a solid even-par 70 to win the national championship, his first career major title, by two strokes.
Rose gutted out par saves on the last two holes, then waited to see Phil Mickelson, the last man with a chance to tie him, play the 18th. When Mickelson missed the hole with his birdie pitch, he was foiled again in his chance to win his first Open, and the trophy belonged to Rose.
For the 32-year-old Rose, the first Englishman to win the U.S. Open since Tony Jacklin did it in 1970, it marked the end of a magical week. But he stretched it out to two weeks, coinciding with his initial arrival at Merion.
“This golf club is steeped in history,” he said. “That really sort of hit home when I came here Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday last week. I was able to appreciate this golf course in the quiet moments when there was nobody around, when there weren’t thousands of people here.
“That’s when I did fall in love with the golf course. (Lee) Trevino said, ‘Fell in love with a girl named Merion, just didn’t know her last name.’ I’ve been sort of joking about that all week.”
Merion proved to be no lady during the week. Fears of subpar rounds matching or beating the Open record of 63, and double-digit under-par final scores were dashed by narrow fairways, high rough and diabolical hole locations. Only 23 subpar scores were fired all week, and Rose’s 1-over 281 was the low score for 72 holes.
“I don’t think anybody expected this golf course to hold up the way it did,” he said. “I certainly didn’t buy into the 62’s and 14-under. I figured that maybe 4-, 5-, 6-under par would be the winning total. But it surprised everybody, I’m just glad I was kind of the last man standing.”
Rose built himself a nice cushion with five birdies on the first 13 holes, preparing him for Merion’s dreaded Final Five. He bogeyed the 14th after hitting his approach into a bunker, and he 3-putted the 16th to tie him with Mickelson and Hunter Mahan.
However, he retook the lead when Mickelson bogeyed and Mahan double bogeyed, both at 15. And while he missed the green on the final two holes, Rose chipped up for tap-in pars.
The 18th hole was a nerve-jangler. Rose said the ball was in a lie “that you could stub out quite easily” with a chip. But he took his 3-wood to get the ball out of the grass, and it came to rest 2 inches away.
After he took the ball out of the cup, Rose looked up to the sky and saluted his father, who introduced him to the game but died when he was 21.
“I thought today was just a fitting time in which I could honor him by looking up,” he said on Father’s Day.
Mickelson, the sentimental favorite and celebrated with choruses of “Happy Birthday” around the course on his 43rd birthday, fell just short once again, finishing second for the sixth time in an Open.
The leader going into Sunday, Mickelson fell back on the front because of double bogeys at the third and fifth holes. He grabbed back the lead by holing out from 75 yards out for eagle at No. 10, but bogeyed the short par-3 13th and the par-4 15th to fall behind Rose and never recovered, closing with a 74 and 283.
“It’s very heartbreaking,” he said. “This could have been a really big turnaround for me on how I look at the U.S. Open and the tournament that I’d like to win after having so many good opportunities. Playing very well here and really loving the golf course, this week was my best opportunity.”
Rose posted his second victory in the Philadelphia area. In 2010, he won the AT&T National in the first of the two years it was played at Aronimink Golf Club in Newtown Square, Pa.
“Aronimink and Merion are both old-school golf courses with very tricky design, tricky greens,” Rose said. “Course management and strategy are a huge part of playing those venues. I felt like on both occasions, I’ve been on my game. I had the ball under control. I was able to navigate my way around the course without making too many mistakes. I think that’s paid off for me.”
Rose also joked that his caddie, Mark Fulcher, “was incredibly happy to see Merion pop up on the schedule” because Fulcher had worked for Laura Davies in her victories at the McDonald’s LPGA Championship at Dupont Country Club in Wilmington, Del.
“I think he was just trying to make sure he hung on to my bag long enough to come to the U.S. Open at Merion,” he said.
And Rose was happy he came, too.