Like an anti-Rory McIlroy, there is something about Justin Rose in full flight that doesn’t set the pulse racing. The Englishman travels from A to B in straight lines. Brilliance dressed in everyday clothes. The world-class golfer whose gifts are so understated that people are fooled into thinking they barely exist. It has been his blessing and it has been his curse.
But not this week. In this week of the 118th US Open, which tees off at the legendary Shinnecock Hills Golf Club on Thursday morning, the watching world of golf expects the ultimate from Justin Rose. The bookies odds suggest Dustin Johnson, such an impressive winner in Memphis last weekend, is the favourite. But the game’s cognoscenti suggest another outcome.
“Justin Rose,” says America’s leading (and best) golf writer, Alan Shipnuck, when asked to identify a winner this week. “Tiny, treacherous greens demand precision and Rose remains the game’s preeminent iron player, as well as a highly reliable driver of the golf ball. He’s been playing well and is due for another big [win].”
“Justin Rose,’’ echoed the Golf Channel’s Geoff Shackelford. “The only weakness in his 2018 game approach has been ironed out with his recent run of strong play. The putting has been stellar all year.”
The Englishman’s name rings out across the media centre at Shinnecock like a Buddhist chant. Justin Rose. Justin Rose, Justin Rose.
This elevation to the media favourite is unchartered territory for Rose, but winning a US Open is not. He triumphed at Merion in 2013, securing victory after a four-iron approach shot to the 72nd hole that ranks as one of the great “pressure” golf shots in recent major championship history.
So he has already proved he has the metal. And as Shackelford suggest, his recent form has been wonderful, as was apparent when he cast adrift a strong PGA Tour field in Fort Worth last month to win by three shots. He is driving the ball long and straight, his ball-striking is precise and his short game is tight. Putting has never been the strongest part of his game but it is usually serviceable. On a course like Shinnecock Hills, where the emphasis will be on straight driving and great ball striking, a serviceable putting performance could well be enough.
When the case for Rose appears so strong, it begs the question “what can stop him?”
The answer is plenty, as it always is in the vicarious arena of major championship golf.
The rest of the field, for one.
The lugubrious Johnson, golf’s gunslinger-in-chief, is not the favourite for nothing. Like Rose, he has already won one of these things, and like the Englishman he is in great form. But history is against the big American, who will attempt to win a US Open the week after winning on the PGA Tour, something that has never been achieved before.
There is a modicum of support behind the Jason Day, who is beginning to resemble the player he was a couple of year back when he climbed to the top of the world rankings. The Australian has the raw power to win around a course like this. But does he have the control, both physical and mental? More than any other of the major championships, the US Open demands patience and Day, for all his gifts, always seems like a man in a hurry.
The same might be said of Rory McIlroy, although the Irishman is one step ahead of Day in that he has already won a US Open. That, however, was at Congressional, a setup stripped of its menace by the wet weather and an untypical act of generosity of the US Golf Association, which had set up the course to encourage under-par scoring. McIlroy needed no second invitation to do exactly that, winning by an eight-shot margin.
Alas for Rory, alas for everyone, there appears to be little generosity in evidence this week. The rough is up, the course is hard and bouncy and the weather is set fair – all of which points to a more traditional US Open challenge. It will be brutal. The USGA has also left itself the option of making it even tougher, especially on and around the greens.
If the tournament organisers go too far in turning the thumbscrews then they risk turning their precious event into a carnival farce, as happened when the US Open was last held at Shinnecock in 2004 and the set-up tipped over from extreme to unfair.
One would hope we will avoid another such mistake, in which we can all expect a magnificent week. Shinnecock Hills is unquestionable of the US’s greatest layouts and like all great courses it has a habit of identifying the best players and assembling them near the top of the leaderboard come Sunday afternoon. McIlroy, Day, DJ, Mickelson, Thomas and Rose. Expect most of them to be in contention as the climax nears but if you have to pick a winner there isn’t better value around than Justin Rose.