NASSAU, Bahamas – We could argue all day which golfer currently is the world’s best. If you want to lean on the latest rankings, this week it’s Brooks Koepka.
But if you want to identify golf’s most consistent performer, that’s much easier to pinpoint: Justin Rose.
Start with the fact he won the FedExCup in late September without the benefit of a victory in the Playoffs. In the 12-year history of the FedExCup, it’s the first time that has happened, as Rose was fueled by three top-five finishes in the final three Playoffs events. His consistency in that stretch gained him the PGA TOUR’s biggest prize.
Of course, he has spent time (as recently as last week) as the world’s No. 1-ranked player, thanks to his continued high finishes. Since the end of the Playoffs, he’s made three starts, finishing eighth, third and then winning his last appearance at the Turkish Airlines Open. It’s no wonder he’s among the betting favorites (along with Tiger Woods and Dustin Johnson) in the local sports books for this week’s Hero World Challenge, played near one of his part-time residences.
In his last 13 starts, Rose has bookend victories (starting with the Fort Worth Invitational in May) and nine other top 10s. The headscratcher is his missed cut at the first FedExCup Playoffs event, THE NORTHERN TRUST. It was his first missed cut in more than a year.
He obviously bounced back pretty well from that.
But it’s not just the end results that reflect Rose’s consistency. Take a look at his Strokes Gained rankings last season: 16th in Off-the-Tee; 17th in Approach-the-Green; 6th in Around-the-Green; 21st in Putting; 4th in Tee-to-Green; and second (to Johnson) in Strokes Gained: Total.
In other words, he finished top 25 in each of the TOUR’s key statistical categories. In the ShotLink Era, that’s historically consistent.
Since 2004, just two other players have ever ranked inside the top 25 in each Strokes Gained category during a given season. It happened in the 2014-15 season when Jordan Spieth and Jason Day each pulled off the trick. Speith, of course, won five events (including two majors) that season en route to the FedExCup. Day also won five times.
PLAYERS RANKED INSIDE TOP 25 IN EACH STROKES GAINED CATEGORY (SINCE 2004) Year/Player Tee-to-Green Off-the-Tee Approach-the-Green Around-the-Green Putting Total 2017-18
4th 16th 17th 6th 21st 2nd 2014-15
4th 15th 11th 7th 9th 2nd 2014-15
5th 3rd 25th 18th 6th 3rd
While Rose didn’t produce that kind of success, he now has a game that contends every time he tees it up.
“My consistency’s been fantastic,” he said this week. “But if I can just bring the next gear or the next level more consistently, that’s going to translate to more wins.”
The outlier in Rose’s all-around game always has been his putting. When Strokes Gained was first launched in 2004, he ranked 162nd that season in Putting. Until last season, he ranked inside the top 100 on TOUR in that category just three times – the best in 2010 when he tied for 53rd.
Knowing that area of his game needed ramping up, he switch to a claw grip in the middle of the 2016 season until switching back to a regular style for awhile. He won Olympic gold that August and leaned on the old style at the Ryder Cup in Hazeltine. “Ryder Cup’s a tough week to introduce a new putting grip,” Rose said, “but I wish I had.”
He went 2-3-0 that week and lost his Singles match to Rickie Fowler in the U.S. victory.
But once making the full commitment to the claw grip, he hasn’t looked back. Putting success didn’t happen overnight, but he’s now at a comfort level that he’s never before experienced on the greens.
“It took a lot of nit-picking away from my stroke and I think it’s allowed me to focus on other aspects of putting,” Rose said. “Putting’s not about a perfect stroke. It’s about skill acquisition, being able to read greens well, put it on the right speed, obviously start it on your line.
“I just felt it simplified a lot of my process and I think that’s been the reason statistically this year’s all compiled into my best putting year ever.”
Now that he has all aspects of his game working at an efficient rate, the key is to maintain that high level. And as we’ve seen, one year of consistency across the board doesn’t guarantee future consistency. Just ask Jordan Spieth, who last season struggled with his putting. Ranked second in Strokes Gained: Putting in the 2015-16 season, Spieth ranked T-123rd last season.
Plus, addressing weaknesses is easy, as it provides a specific target to work on. Maintaining is more difficult, as lapses could happen with any club in the bag.
Rose has a plan on how to handle it.
“It’s always a matter of how do you protect that, how do you keep your strengths being your strengths,” he explained. “You’ve still got to focus on them. I’ve begun to develop what I call sort of my minimum viable product in terms of practice daily. What do I have to do daily just to kind of maintain what’s going well? And then when I get inspired to go down a route with my game, then I’ll get into a practice session based upon improvement. That could be different just depending on how I’m feeling.
“I still think my iron play could be a lot stronger. It’s inherently been a strength of mine, but I think statistically, I haven’t been hitting my irons as I would like for the past number of sessions. Short game, chipping – I feel like there’s still a level I can go to there.”
The overall goal, of course, is to win more tournaments. If he does so this week at the Hero World Challenge, he will return to the No. 1 spot in the world, and he’d love to close out the 2018 calendar year in that position.
With his next PGA TOUR victory, he would have 10 in his career. That would be the most by any English player since the end of World War II.
And, of course, he’ll manage his 2019 schedule in a way that will maximize his energy in the big events. He may have the most unique trophy case in golf – the FedExCup, an Olympic gold medal and a U.S. Open win – but at age 38, he knows the window of opportunity for more majors is starting to close ever so slightly.
It’s been five years since that U.S. Open win, and after knocking on the door a few times – three second-place finishes, including last year’s Open Championship – he’s feeling a sense of urgency. “It’s time for me to win another major,” he said.
For the time-being, though, he’s enjoying life as golf’s most consistent player. It’s nice to wake up every day, get to the course, and have no significant weaknesses. Few golfers at any level can say that.
“I feel good,” Rose said. “I’m really enjoying my golf and I think that’s the most important thing as well. It’s easy to enjoy when it’s going well, but I’m enjoying not necessarily the success or the results, but I’m enjoying the process and I think that’s important.”
Justin Rose's news conference after winning the FedExCup