Coming into Sunday at the 113th U.S. Open, the story was all about Phil Mickelson and his pursuit of his national championship. With five runner-up finishes, the most in the history of the event, Mickelson had some unfinished business with this tournament and the USGA. As is the case usually on U.S. Open Sunday, the winner would be crowned on Father’s Day, and with Mickelson seen as the ideal family man and loving father, the golf media worked itself into quite the lather leading into the final round. Did I mention that Sunday was also his 43rd birthday? You couldn’t write this stuff. The problem is, nobody told Justin Rose that he wasn’t supposed to win.
Even for the most ardent of golf fans, Rose has been a bit of an enigma. He first appeared on the national stage as an amateur in the 1998 Open Championship, where he ended up tied for fourth place at 17 years old. He turned pro the next day but struggled with his game, going winless until the 2002 Dunhill Championship. His father Ken, who had been fighting cancer, passed away soon after that victory. A few more wins and inconsistencies followed until Rose hired Sean Foley at the end of the 2009 season, leading to victories at huge PGA Tour events like the Memorial, AT&T, BMW and WGC-Cadillac, but the major championship still eluded him.
Highs and lows are common on the golf course, even for the professionals, but it’s magnified at the U.S. Open, where the USGA does it’s very best to manipulate the course in a way that protects par, as if the best players in the world breaking it would cause some kind of cataclysmic event. The list of players who missed the cut on Friday was littered with some of the game’s best, including twelve major champions. Another nine major winners who made the cut never threatened the leaders on the weekend.
For most of Sunday’s final round, everything was up in the air. Narrow fairways, thick seven inch rough, lightning fast greens and devilish pin positions made the top of the leaderboard an ever-changing entity. Mickelson and Rose were constants, while Steve Stricker, Hunter Mahan, Jason Day, Luke Donald and others all made appearances before disappearing just like the rest.
The old adage at the Masters is that the tournament never begins until the back nine on Sunday, and while it’s not as pronounced, the U.S. Open at Merion wouldn’t kick into high gear until the final five holes, which were playing 2.27 strokes above par heading into Sunday, by far the highest strokes to par total in the last twenty years of the U.S. Open.
Playing two groups in front of Mickelson, Rose drained a long birdie putt on 13, the short par-3 that Mickelson would bogey thirty minutes later. Rose would make bogey on the 14th and 16th to drop to 1-over par, while Mickelson couldn’t take advantage of a perfect drive down the middle of the fairway on 15, leading to another dropped shot. Rose would make a par on the long par-3 17th before heading to the 18th tee to hit the most important shot of his career.
Scoreboards were all over Merion this week, and Rose knew where he stood. In all likelihood, Mickelson would be the only one who could catch him, and to do that, he’d need to be 1-under on the final two holes if Rose could just make one more par. Rose stepped up to the tee and split the fairway. After a near perfect approach rolled to the fringe and Rose nestled it close with a hybrid, he was able to tap in for that par. Mickelson would go on to play the final two holes in 1-over par, ending up two shots behind Rose for the championship.
Rose has never been one to show tons of emotion on the course, save for a few moments at last year’s Ryder Cup, but after tapping in, it’s almost like he realized the enormity of the moment and the symbolism of winning his first major on Father’s Day.
Rose looked up and pointed to the sky, something he acknowledged after the round as being directed at his father, telling Jay Coffin of Golf Channel:
Yes, the look up to the heavens was absolutely for my dad,” Rose, 32, said moments after shooting a final-round 70 to win the U.S. Open at Merion. “Father’s Day was not lost on me today. You don’t have opportunities to really dedicate a win to someone you love. And today was about him and being Father’s Day.
I was 21 when he passed away and I always think about it as the time together we had was quality not quantity. I would rather have had 21 fantastic years with my dad than 40 years of a relationship that was, hey, you know, so‑so. But I have very fond memories of the way I grew up. My dad and I were lucky enough to spend a lot of quality time together learning to play the game, after school on the driving range, so I can look back at our life together with a lot of fondness.
After pointing to the sky, Rose waited as his playing partner and good friend Luke Donald finished out. NBC stayed locked on the 32-year old, as he was starting to well up. It started again in the clubhouse as he sat with his wife Kate and waited for Mickelson to finish out, with the replay of him pointing to the sky being shown on the monitor.
It’s not often that we see this kind of raw emotion out of professional athletes.
Ahead of Sunday’s final round, Foley sent Rose a text message that said “Go out there and be the man that your dad taught you to be.” There’s no question that he did that on Sunday at Merion.