After completing the biggest win of his career to date at last week’s WGC-Cadillac Championship in Florida, a superb victory that propelled the Englishman back into the world’s top ten, Justin Rose reflected on the sense of calm confidence now instilled in his game – a mentality helping the 31 year old to emerge from the shadows in European golf’s ‘Golden Era’.
Rory McIlroy was barely nine years old when Justin Rose announced himself to the sporting world in thrilling fashion at the 1998 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale as a fresh-faced 17 year old amateur.
Nine years later it was McIlroy’s turn to capture the imagination of golf as an 18 year old amateur, again at The Open Championship but this time north of the border at Carnoustie, storming into the public eye after shooting an opening round 68 – the only bogey-free round of the day.
While now, almost five years on, the Northern Irishman is netting a plethora of global headlines thanks to his recent ascent to the World Number One spot, the re-emergence of Rose – a man whose shoulders were bestowed with as equally large a burden of expectation following a glorious prologue to his career – in securing a one shot victory at last week’s WGC-Cadillac Championship heralded a personality at peace with his game and with himself.
“I felt comfortable on the weekend. I felt calm. I felt ready to play well,” said Rose, whose triumph in Florida was the biggest in a 14-year career and propelled him up to seventh in the Official World Golf Ranking.
“Maybe it was just a fact you desensitise a little bit to the pressure, to the cameras, to the crowd, and you get more comfortable. I think that's why guys like Tiger [Woods] and Phil [Mickelson] are so good down the stretch and under pressure, because they have done it so often. I think it's all about just getting comfortable.
“And I felt very comfortable today. I was even kind of checking myself, even on the 18th tee, and there were very few nerves. I was thinking ‘this is not normal really’, based upon the past, but I guess it's a good sign of getting more comfortable out there.”
The phrase “rollercoaster ride” is one often overused in professional sport, but when considering the long and winding road that Rose has traversed since turning professional the day after The 1998 Open Championship – with the golfing media ablaze with expectancy and anticipation following his tied fourth place finish at Birkdale – it seems only too appropriate.
The South African-born Rose had to suffer the ignominy of 21 missed cuts in succession after turning professional, a spectacular fall from grace that was played out in full view of the watching world, and after battling back following a stint on the Challenge Tour he went on to win his first professional events in 2002, at the Dunhill Championship and the British Masters.
But it was in 2007, in a strange parallel with the arrival of McIlroy on the wider golfing platform, that the Hampshire-raised Rose’s potential finally bloomed, winning twice in the season en route to claiming the Harry Vardon Trophy and The European Tour Order of Merit.
Even in winning the season-ending Volvo Masters at Valderrama to take the European Number One spot in 2007 – then the largest prize he had seized – Rose had stumbled his way to victory in what was a nervy last nine holes, eventually claiming the title following a three-man play-off with compatriot Simon Dyson and Denmark’s Søren Kjeldsen.
However in the Florida heat on Sunday, the likeable Englishman managed to stay cool, overcoming a three-shot deficit at the start of play to secure his first World Golf Championships title with a two under par 70, a clear reflection of the growing sense of place and comfort Rose feels in the upper echelons of the game.
“I’m getting old, 31 now,” he said, half-seriously. “I don't know; I have learned the hard way a little bit. I've certainly had my chances in the past, as well. It's nice to get a little bit of momentum and confidence going. When I do get into contention now, I believe I can go ahead and close it out.
“There's a lot of tricks and stuff going in. It's very easy to say ‘I'm going to be relaxed today’. But there's a certain knack; you've got to know your tendencies out there. I definitely work on my pace and my rhythm from my golf swing, to the way I walk, to the way I do everything.”
In hoisting the Gene Sarazen Cup on Sunday, a trophy he described as a “little beauty”, Rose sealed his fourth win in the last 20 months, having also previously captured the US PGA Tour’s BMW Championship last September and the Memorial Tournament and AT&T National in the summer of 2010.
Quite the purple patch, then, for a man who just seven years ago was outside of the top 100 in the world ranking. Having now thrust himself alongside the likes of McIlroy, and the trio of European former World Number Ones in Luke Donald, Martin Kaymer and Lee Westwood, the unassuming Rose is more than aware of the increased attention that will indisputably follow heading into the 2012 Major Championship season.
He said: “There's going to be a lot of expectation on [McIlroy] and a lot of expectation on Tiger, as there always is. I'm probably, having had the start to the season that I've had, in the mix of players to talk about and I'll have to field questions on it I'm sure.
“But it's all part of being a pro, part of the job. And I feel pretty comfortable with that. I don't think it changes the way I'm going to approach anything. It's not going to change my expectation levels. I just think if you have the ability just to shut it out really and be able to answer a question honestly, but not really think about it on your own time, that's the key.”
Having already dealt with a barrage of attention and questions in the opening act of his career, Rose admitted there was “definitely something about learning how to win”. The 31 year old seems to have grasped that certain something in the last two years, and his fine run of form could not have been timed much better.
With the Masters Tournament now less than a month away, Rose will be looking to build on his tied 11th finish in last year’s event, but the five-time European Tour winner is being careful not to reassess his aims entirely or too hastily.
“I think I could become a more prolific winner before I completely focus on the Majors 100 per cent as my only goal,” he said, “But no doubt I believe I'm a good enough player now, and I've learned enough along the way that I have a realistic shot every time I tee it up in a Major.”
Having missed out on what would have been his second Ryder Cup cap in 2010, Rose will be acutely aware that victory in the second WGC of 2012 has seen him climb to fourth in the current European Ryder Cup points list and in with an excellent shot at making the team for September’s showpiece at Medinah.
However, Rose has spent a lifetime absorbing expectations, so now seems content with keeping his sights trained firmly on the present.
As his son, Leo, who recently turned three years old, bounded around the media centre at Doral threatening to overshadow the winner’s press conference, Rose cut the figure of a man content in all aspects of life – happy with the win, but equally happy to make the short journey back to his family home in Orlando with wife Kate and recent addition Charlotte.
Expectations require careful management, as the 2012 Cadillac Champion’s past experience exhibits, and he exuded cautious optimism following his coronation at Doral. Last week in the warmth of the Florida sun he stepped out of the shadows of his counterparts and joined the fray at the forefront of European golf’s ‘Golden Era’.
“It’s a good place to be,” said Rose, smiling. “I feel like I'm actually in a perfect spot. The expectations are not too high but I feel my ability is good enough now to get the job done.”