There’s a scene in the 1992 Clint Eastwood western Unforgiven where Will Munny, played by Eastwood, prepares to kill Gene Hackman’s character Little Bill Daggett. “I don’t deserve this,” Daggett says. “To die like this.” Munny’s response is a classic: “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it.”
The line was so good that David Simon borrowed it for an episode of The Wire 16 years later, and added a flourish: “Deserve’s got nothing to do with it…it’s his time, that’s all.”
The meaning in both scenes is clear: No matter how much somebody “deserves” something, life often has other plans. And at the risk of comparing golf titles to life-and-death, the same could be said for Justin Rose. In 1998, he finished fourth in the Open Championship at Royal Birkdale as an amateur, winning the Silver Medal and famously holing out from 50 yards on the 18th hole.
I had to look up who won the Claret Jug (it was Mark O’Meara), but I won’t forget what Rose did. And if you approached any golf fan that day, in any country, and asked whether Rose would have his own Jug 20 years later, the answers would be unanimous: Of course.
It took Rose a while to fulfil his promise as a professional, but fulfil it he did, and he finally won his major with a gritty performance in 2013 at the U.S. Open in Philadelphia. But to this day, Rose—now 38—has not won the championship where he first made his name.
Since late 2011, his golf has been superlative, with the aforementioned U.S. Open, two WGC titles, a FedExCup playoff win, and various other wins on both tours. He’s come achingly close at the Masters twice, he won the gold medal at the Rio Olympics, and last year he captured the FedExCup and its gaudy $10 million prize. In the past year alone, he’s had five separate stints as the number one golfer in the world.
And yet, there’s one enormous gap on his resume, and that gap is the Open Championship. It’s the one he deserves, even if deserve’s got nothing to do with it.
And we can’t talk about Rose’s quest for the Claret Jug without talking about the English quest. Nick Faldo was the last Englishman to win the trophy in 1992, and the three-lion drought is now 27 years long. Lee Westwood couldn’t do it; Luke Donald couldn’t do it; Ian Poulter couldn’t do it; Paul Casey couldn’t do it. Maybe some of them deserved it too, in their own way, but there was nobody quite like Rose to carry the flag for England.
He’s not long from giving that flag up to the likes of Fleetwood and Hatton and Willett and Fitzpatrick, but for now, he still carries it. Nevertheless, his performances weren’t exemplary at the Open Championship until last year, when he shot 64-69 on the weekend to finish in a tie for second, two shots behind Francesco Molinari. In 16 tries a professional, that was only his second top-ten.
The symbolism of a Rose win at Royal Portrush would be profound, and it would mean a lot for his career, too: At the moment, he belongs to the class of one-major underachievers, a designation belonging to golfers of a certain age who have had terrific careers, but who should have seized more than a single major. Sergio Garcia and Adam Scott are the two most prominent members of that clique, and if you want to go back a few years, you might add Jim Furyk and Davis Love III to the roster.
Yet even in that crowd, Rose stands out as the best among equals, and though golf allows for a lengthier prime, there’s no ignoring the fact that his chances will grow less frequent as he rounds past his 40th birthday next summer.
Which brings us to 2019. Rose, as usual, finds himself in terrific form. With an eighth-place finish at the Players Championship and a T-3 at the U.S. Open, we know he can compete in the strongest fields against the best players.
As for the course, Royal Portrush was a shooting gallery when it hosted the 2012 Irish Open (Jamie Donaldson won at -18), and though Rose has a few notable wins at difficult courses (Merion, Congressional), those were actually anomalies—most of his professional wins come when he goes really, really low.
He doesn’t necessarily thrive on links courses, but nor does he suffer, and when birdies are plentiful as they should be at Royal Portrush, the style, of course, shouldn’t matter.
So here we are: Rose can put a capstone on a magnificent career, end the English drought at the Open Championship, and find triumph at the same tournament that kicked off his 20-year adventure in golf’s spotlight. More than anyone else in the field, he deserves it. And while it’s true that—say it with me—deserve’s got nothing to do with it, maybe it’s the second half of that line from The Wire that matters most: “It’s his time, that’s all.”