Backspin: Rose sensed success at Merion

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ARDMORE, Pa. -- When Justin Rose showed up to practice at Merion the week before the U.S. Open, he felt an instant connection to it, to the history that it’s so steeped in and the golf course itself.

“I was able to appreciate this golf course in the quiet moments, when there was nobody around,” he said. “And that's when I did fall in love with the golf course.”

Lee Trevino felt the same way when he arrived in 1971, and that Rose nearly matched Trevino’s score for the week on his way to winning his first career major championship perhaps shouldn’t come as a surprise. After all, both are phenomenal ball-strikers.

“I felt like this tournament really began to be on my radar as possibly the one major championship that would suit me the most,” Rose said. “I had always felt good at Augusta, always dreamed about winning The Open Championship, but I thought this one actually might have been my best chance.

“I really targeted Merion. The way I prepared this week and the way everything played out, it just seems like it's just been a perfect week start to finish.”

And the perfect beginning to what could be a very good second half of Rose’s career.

When he tied for fourth as a 17-year-old at the 1998 British Open, expectations soared. Rose, meanwhile, plummeted. After turning pro the next day, he would miss 21 straight cuts.

“I was just trying to not fade away,” Rose said. “I just didn't want to be known as a one-hit wonder, flash in the pan.”

Rose had an inherent belief in himself and his ability, much of which came from his late father, Ken, who died of Leukemia when Rose was just 21 years old.

It was that self-belief and a lot of hard work that got Rose through those dark days and eventually to the podium on Sunday for what was his fifth victory since 2010, which is when Rose says he turned the corner and began Act II.

“At times it feels 25 years since Birkdale,” Rose said of that 1998 British Open. “Other times it feels like it was just yesterday. There's a lot of water under the bridge. My learning curve has been steep from that point.

“I think winning makes you hungry to do it again because it just feels so darn good. Most of us lose 90 percent of the time. And you don't want to get too good at losing, but it reminds you about why you practice hard and why you play the game.”

QUOTES OF THE WEEK

“I didn’t hear any of the golfers saying that. It was you guys saying that it was going to be scoreable. So you must be very good golfers.” -- Rory McIlroy when asked if he was surprised that Merion didn’t yield more low scores.

“I told him that this is the best setup I've ever seen for a U.S. Open.” -- Phil Mickelson on what he told USGA executive director Mike Davis about Merion. Though I’m not sure he felt the same way about the 274-yard par-3 third hole.

"(R&A chief executive) Peter Dawson has reassured me that for the Open Championship we'll be going back to flags like a normal tournament.” -- Lee Westwood after his ball bounced off the wicker basket atop the pin on the 12th hole in the first round and some 30 yards back into the fairway. He went on to double bogey the hole.

TWEETS OF THE WEEK

@BrandtSnedeker: Congrats @JustinRose99  for your first major.. Couldn't have happened to a better guy.. You are officially one up!!! -- Snedeker’s right. Rose is one of the classiest and nicest guys on TOUR, which is a testament to the influence and profound impact his late father Ken had on him.

@HunterMahan: Fun day out there with Phil, happy for @JustinRose99. Ill be also be happy to not hear the "Happy Birthday song" for a long time -- Mahan, who was paired with Mickelson in the final round at Merion and endured chants of “Happy Birthday” to Mickelson all afternoon.

@wingoz: The way things are going for Billy Horschel those Octopus pants are turning into fried calamari. -- ESPN’s Trey Wingo on the outfit worn by Horschel in Sunday’s final round. After two straight 69s, he struggled to a 75.

THE BACK NINE: 9 THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW

1. As Phil Mickelson said Sunday night, this one “really hurts.” Mickelson, who was seeking to become the first U.S. Open champion over the age of 40 ironically since Payne Stewart, the man who beat him in 1999, now has 29 career runner-up finishes. Six of those have of course come in the U.S. Open, which is two more than any other player in this tournament. The only other player with more runner-up finishes in a single major championship? Jack Nicklaus with seven at the British Open.

2. Speaking of close calls in majors, Jason Day now has four finishes in the top three in four of his last nine majors, including two runner-up finishes in the U.S. Open (he finished a distant second to Rory McIlroy in 2011 at Congressional). The difference between Day and Mickelson of course is that Mickelson is 43 and Day is 25. "I feel that my game is in a really good spot right now," Day said. "I'm doing the right things. I'm doing the little things that count."

3. Tiger Woods finished his week with a 13-over 293 total for his highest score in 16 professional starts at the U.S. Open. And while he has 71 stateside wins in 16 different states, none of them have come in Pennsylvania. As for why he struggled so much at Merion? Look no further than his putter. He took 128 putts over four days, or 32 per round. By comparison, when he won at Doral earlier this year, he needed just 100 putts.

4. Billy Horschel stumbled to a 75 on Sunday but it was just his second career start in a major championship. His tie for fourth also gives him seven top 10s this season, most of any on TOUR and one more than Keegan Bradley, Bill Haas, Matt Kuchar and Brandt Snedeker. Pretty good company to be in.

5. Stat of the Week I: Justin Rose was 4 over through the first 13 holes of his opening round -- and 3 under for the next 60. Rose talked Sunday night about the importance of patience last week and that stat is probably the best example of it. Not to mention it speaks volumes about how good Rose was over those last 60 holes on a golf course that played 4 1/2 strokes over par.

6. Stat of the Week II: The last 19 major championships have been won by 18 different players. Rory McIlroy is the only player with two wins in majors in that span. Can you say parity? The days of one player dominating the way Woods once did are over, at least for now.

7. Call it the International Slam: The last four majors have all gone to non-Americans -- Ernie Els (British Open), Rory McIlroy (PGA Championship), Adam Scott (Masters) and of course Rose (U.S. Open). Rose is also the first Englishman to win the U.S. Open since Tony Jacklin in 1970.

8. It is tradition that the caddie of the winner gets to keep the pin flag from the 18th hole at a major or any event really. But at Merion, wicker baskets sit atop the pins. So Rose’s caddie, Mark Fulcher, will be getting one of those instead. Fulcher, by the way, has been on the bag for five victories now in Philadelphia -- two with Rose and three more on his LPGA days. “When Merion popped up on to the schedule, he was incredibly happy to see it,” Rose said. “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.”

9. Who knows if this will be the last U.S. Open played at Merion, but as Bill Pennington of the New York Times put it, bringing the U.S. Open here is akin to a small college stadium hosting the Super Bowl. The field is still 100 yards, and in Merion the course proved to be plenty difficult, but the logistics are difficult. “I think the U.S. Open has kind of moved past one of these venues,” Snedeker said. “I love the history here, but there's so much more that goes in a U.S. Open than just golf. Just from an infrastructure standpoint, from a fan standpoint, from a global marketing standpoint, I feel like this tournament needs more space to put on a championship in the right way.”

MONDAY BACKSPIN MAILBAG
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Do you think Phil Mickelson deserved to win over Justin Rose? -- Carter Bossy

Well, Mickelson certainly missed a huge opportunity and that’s why this one hurt more than any of the other runner-up finishes he’s had in the U.S. Open. But to say he deserved it over Rose would be to discredit just how good Rose was, particularly on Nos. 15, 17 and 18 when the pressure was at its highest and the golf course at its most difficult. As much as Mickelson lost it, Rose won it.

Why is Steve Stricker skipping the British Open? -- Jacob Austin

As he reiterated Sunday night, golf is secondary in his life at this point in his career. Stricker likes spending time with his family, is playing a limited schedule, doesn’t have a good record in the British Open and is choosing to stay home that week.

Do you think Tiger and Rory playing together negatively affects each of their performances? Maybe they should kid around more during round? -- Matt Hackbart

Major championships -- especially ones as difficult as the U.S. Open -- aren’t often the place for joking around. The two actually get along very well and have even played against each other at home in Florida. The bigger problem for Woods was his putting. For McIlroy, it is still consistency and confidence in his swing.

Have a question for the mailbag? Send it to brianwacker@pgatourhq.com or via Twitter at @pgatour_brianw.

FORWARD SPIN: WHO I LIKE THIS WEEK

The Travelers Championship is always a welcome sight for players -- especially those coming off the U.S. Open -- because of the abundance of birdies that TPC River Highlands yields. Newly crowned U.S. Open champion Justin Rose will be there, along with 46 others who were in the field at Merion. But the two courses have nothing in common so expect someone who has a propensity to take it low to do well. Someone like Freddie Jacobson, who has won there before and is eighth on TOUR in scoring average.

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