That was not the case with Justin Rose’s victory Sunday on Merion Golf Club’s east course. Rose fired an even-par 70 to best Phil Mickelson and Jason Day by two shots. Rose’s textbook swing and solid ball striking (said to be the bet in the world over the last two years by some of his professional colleagues) were certainly on display. For the week he averaged just over 300 yards off the tee, hit 75% of his fairways (45/60) and 69% of his greens in regulation (50/72). But none of these aspects of Rose’s game have been called into question.
About a year ago he began putting with his eyes closed because his confidence with the flat stick had all but disappeared. Imagine not being able to even look at the ball as you strike it because you are so frazzled with your putting. As a professional.
For the week Rose had 2.4 putts per green in regulation; meaning if he had a birdie putt he took 2.4 putts to get the ball in the hole. If he had those statistics in this week’s Travelers Championship he’d likely miss the cut. But the US Open is a different animal, particularly on the greens. Rose’s putting in the final round showed remarkable improvement. In fact he certainly earned this cliched praise: “If he can putt like that all the time, he’ll win many more majors.” History says that doesn’t happen for the vast majority of players.
At any rate, Rose went and earned his major championship. His drive to nearly the center of the 18th fairway was astounding. Even more so when considering his playing partner, Luke Donald, had blocked his tee ball way right. Seeing a bad shot before playing one’s own can often lead to disaster for a player. Not in Rose’s case.
I’ll save the comparisons to Ben Hogan’s incredible 1-iron to the 72nd green at the 1950 US Open, also at Merion, but Rose certainly played a defining shot for his victory. He struck a laser 4-iron 229 yards that rolled inches from the cup before scooting off the green to the back fringe. Given the pin position and the green sloping away from the player, Rose’s shot was simply pure.
A remarkable chip/putt with his 4 wood stopped on the door step, left of the hole. A birdie would have sealed the championship, but a tap-in par was good enough for a 281 (1-over par) score.
Standing on the 17th tee while Rose was winning the tournament was Phil Mickelson. At the time, he was a shot behind Rose, needing an unlikely birdie to force a playoff or two highly unlikely birdies to win outright. After his tee shot failed to reach the proper level of the 17th green, Mickelson settled for a lengthy two-putt for par. Standing on the 511 yard 18th, and without a driver in his bag, Mickelson needed to make the first birdie on the 18th from any player on the weekend. He drove it into the left rough and his approach came up well short. With caddie Jim “Bones” McKay tending the pin, Phil’s pitch shot rolled well pas the hole and his record sixth runner-up finish in a US Open was sealed.
It was not the typical Mickelsonian end to a US Open though. In 1999 at Pinehurst, 2004 at Shinnecock and 2009 at Bethpage Phil had costly three-putts late in the final round that were his undoing. Of course his epic double-bogey collapse on the 72nd hole at Winged Foot in 2006 has been well documented. But Merion was different for Phil.
He was arguable the best player tee-to-green all week. His typical go-for-broke style was largely eschewed (reportedly on a promise to swing coach Butch Harmon). But Phil also said he was hitting his irons better than he had in his career.
While there was no epic blow-up as we’ve come to expect from Phil in a US Open, he did fail to execute two wedge shots (of all things) on the back nine. First, at the short 13th, playing 122 yards, the easiest hole at the US Open in 30 years. Phil opted for a pitching wedge, one of five in his bag for the week, this one with 47 degrees of loft, the other four at 52, 56, 60 and 64 degrees respectively (incidentally, he did hole out for eagle on the 10th with the 64). At any rate, he flew the green and made a horrendous bogey.
Then on the 15th, with wedge in hand, he proceeded to make bogey and really put himself behind the proverbial 8-ball with three exceedingly difficult holes to play.
After his round, Phil said he thought this was his best chance to win a US Open. At 43, how many more chances will he have? Who knows. But Phil knows how to play a US Open. The question going forward is, with time running out, can he figure out how to close one?
Here are more winners and losers from the 2013 US Open at Merion:
Jason Day – winner: He now has three runner-ups and a third in majors. At 25 his incredible talent shine through already. He played well enough to win, but just as was the case at the Masters late bogeys were his undoing. With only one PGA Tour victory it seems Day needs to work on closing the deal.
Jason Dufner – winner: His second consecutive T4 finish at the US Open shows his game suits this tournament well. And ballstriking like Dufner’s will always contend. He fired a tournament-low 67 Sunday, WITH A TRIPLE BOGEY. It was that triple on the 15th that sealed his fate, though. Dufner needs to use this strong finish to jump start a lack-luster 2013.
Hunter Mahan – loser: He was in the final group with Phil Mickelson. When Rose parred the 18th Mahan, like Mickelson, was on the 17th green. He needed two birdies to get into a playoff. After finding the rough with his tee shot, Mahan duffed the chip and ended his hopes. It raises the question if Mahan is really over that duffed chip on the 17th hole of his 2010 Ryder Cup match with Graeme McDowell. His physical technique has improved around the greens, but perhaps his mental approach still needs work.
Billy Horschel – loser/winner: Horschel loses because of the octopus pants he wore Sunday. But he wins because in his first major as a professional he held the 36-hole lead and finished T4. All he will take away is more confidence, as if he needed it. He will also gain invaluable experience about the pressure of a weekend at a major.
Luke Donald – loser: Donald was out of it early Sunday. His tee shot at the impossibly long 3rd hit the standard bearer from the group in front. While that saved Donald from a possible lost ball or unplayable lie, he seemed rattled as the volunteer was down for several minutes before walking away on her own. Donald is a former world-number-one. The only thing for him to prove is that he can win a major championship.
Steve Stricker: loser: Starting the day one shot off the lead, it seemed this was a great, if not the last, chance for Stricker to capture that elusive major. On the second tee he blocked his drive out-of-bounds to the right. After find the fairway with his provisional, he proceeded to fire a cold shank dead right and OB again. He recovered from that triple bogey but only to score a top-10. At 46, and playing only part-time, the question for Stricker, like Mickelson, is how many more chances will there be?
Ultimately though, the unquestioned winner was Justin Rose. He played well enough to win, executed his shots down the stretch and earned this US Open. He is now off of the dreaded “Best Players Without a Major” list. So how long before he gets number 2?