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us open

Teen Angel

The hopes of a nation soared with 17-year-old sensation Justin Rose

by Alan Shipnuck

Click here for more on this story
Posted: Wed July 22, 1998

Sports Illustrated Sir Michael Bonallack has been a fixture in British golf since 1961, when he won the first of his five Amateur Championships. For the last 15 years he has served as secretary of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews, overseeing the biggest show in the game, the British Open. On Sunday evening he was standing behind Royal Birkdale's 18th green wearing the contented look of a man who had gazed into the future and liked what he had seen—and heard. "That," he said, "was the loudest noise I have ever heard on a golf course."

  GPBRIT2ND21.JPG Rose, who turned pro on Sunday night, electrified an adoring crowd by holing his final shot as an amateur.    (Bob Martin)
If you don't know what Bonallack was talking about, then you weren't paying attention to last week's British Open. When Justin Rose, a grinning 17-year-old from England, holed an impossible wedge shot for birdie on the 72nd hole, the roar shook Birkdale and all of golf. The shot put an exclamation point on a preposterous week in which Rose tied for fourth, melted the heart of a nation and added more luster to what has been a golden year for amateurs.

"At the beginning of my week all I wanted was to be a part of it all," Rose said following his final-round 69, which left him two shots out of the Mark O'Meara-Brian Watts playoff. "I didn't realize I would be such a big part of it, almost getting the feel of being the winning player coming up the 18th. That's how I felt today."

Rose's finish was the best by an amateur in the British Open since Frank Stranahan tied for second in 1953 at Carnoustie. Though Rose has compiled an impressive resume on the amateur circuit, there was nothing to hint at the mastery he would have over such a ferocious course. Unlike the two other celebrated youngsters in the field, U.S. Amateur champion Matt Kuchar and British Am winner Sergio Garcia, Rose wasn't exempt into the 156-man field (though having made Britain's last Walker Cup team did earn him a free pass through one round of qualifying).

Rose opened with a solid two-over 72, but that was lost among the low scores of the day. It was last Friday that Rose roused the memory of Bobby Jones, the last amateur to win the Open, in 1930. In conditions that were poor even by the standards of this championship, Rose shot a 66, the low round of the day by two strokes and miles from the average score of 74.78. That left him only a stroke behind the leader, Watts.

Butch Harmon, Tiger Woods's coach, put the collective awe into words, saying, "That's an incredible score. An impossible score. If you had told me that Tiger or Nick Price had shot a 66 today, I wouldn't have believed it."

  GPBRIT2ND19.JPG Rose made headlines for his extraordinary play and for the unassuming way in which he interacted with the fans.    (Robert Beck)
Upon hearing the news, Price said mischievously, "How old is he, 17? They're getting younger." In fact, Rose was 11 months old the first time a club—an oversized plastic one—was placed in his hand. At five he got his first real set and ever since has been terrorizing the North Hants Golf Club near Hook, a town of 6,000 about 40 miles southwest of London. In 1995, when he was 14, Rose made it through the first stage of qualifying for the Open. That summer he also won his most prestigious amateur title, the England Boys Championship (for players under 18). Like so many top European prospects, Rose dropped out of school at 16 and has been playing for various national teams for the last year and a half.

Last August, at Quaker Ridge in Scarsdale, N.Y., Rose became the youngest player ever to tee it up in the Walker Cup, performing admirably while splitting four matches for Great Britain-Ireland during an 18-6 drubbing by the U.S. "He really showed himself well," says Kuchar, who had gotten friendly with Rose the week before the British when they played a practice round together at the Loch Lomond invitational. "He was one of the few guys from the British team who gave his [opponents] a match." Kuchar was so taken with his new buddy that he followed him around the course last Saturday, putting to good use the leisure time that came with his first missed cut in three major-championship appearances this year.

Rose's keenest attribute is the happy-go-lucky attitude he takes to the course. Following his historic 66—it matched the lowest score by an amateur in Open history—Rose pronounced it "one of my best rounds." One of his best?

When he began the windblown third round with back-to-back bogeys and then missed the green with his second shot on the par-4 3rd, it looked as though Rose was going to get his comeuppance. But he made a clutch up-and-down for par and fought gamely from there on in. He got a break at the par-3 12th when his errant tee shot took one big bounce and smacked a young girl on the forehead, which prevented the ball from straying into the heather. The girl was fine, as was Rose's chip, and his subsequent par, combined with playing partner Watts's bogey, gave Rose the outright lead. Understandably spooked, he bogeyed the next two holes, but in the end he had ground out a 75 on a day when no one broke par. Impossibly, he was in fifth place, only three strokes behind the front-running Watts.

The fans gave Rose a thunderous reception. In two days he had become the rage of Great Britain. (JUSTIN TIME, too, as one newspaper put it, because the rest of Britain's headliners—Nick Faldo, Colin Montgomerie and Lee Westwood—had played like amateurs.) Countless fans placed roses in their caps, following the lead of Rose's parents, Ken, a management consultant, and Annie. On every hole people shouted out Rose's name as he passed by, and Rose was such a rube he invariably searched the gallery to return the greetings. Between green and tee he enthusiastically exchanged high fives, and before and after his rounds he tirelessly indulged well-wishers and autograph seekers, a crowd that skewed noticeably toward preteen girls with dreamy looks. "I don't know what to make of it," Rose said charmingly. "I almost sort of saw myself as Jack Nicklaus for some silly reason."

On the eve of the final round, Birkdale was buzzing with two questions: Could Rose pull off a miracle, and would Sunday be his final round as an amateur? Rose had begun the week saying the Open would be a barometer to see if he was ready to join the pro ranks. "Looking at the way I've played and my comfort level, I guess I'm getting pretty close to making that decision," he said on Saturday night. All of this heavy breathing was evidence of the status that's now accorded the top amateurs.

With his three straight U.S. Amateur titles, from 1994 to '96, Woods made amateur golf matter again, but this season its visibility has gone to another level. Kuchar, a huggable junior at Georgia Tech, nearly stole the show at the Masters and the U.S. Open. Earlier this month at the U.S. Women's Open, Duke senior Jenny Chuasiriporn extended South Korea's Se Ri Pak to a playoff and, despite losing, offered a winning alternative to Pak's cold professionalism. Though Garcia, a Spaniard, hasn't broken through yet in a major, the 18-year-old's style of play and personality are flamboyant, and he, too, has become a fan favorite. When Rose was asked why the crowds warmed to him, he said, "It comes from the heart," and that's probably the best explanation of the amateurs' appeal. In a sport where the yardstick of success is the money list, the unsullied smile of a teenager buys a lot of love from the gallery.

Unfortunately, pars don't come that cheap, not on Sunday at the British Open. Rose began his final round with a bogey and followed with two more on the front nine, turning in 36, five back of Watts. With no chance at victory, he had to settle for glory. Rose was flawless on the back nine, making no bogeys against three birdies, the last that dazzling wedge on 18, from the rough 45 yards out to a pin tucked against a gaping bunker. "To finish on that note was in context with the whole week," Rose said. In the next breath he confirmed that he was going to play this week's Dutch Open as a pro, saying, "What a way to finish."

Rose's professional future is uncertain, but even if he does go on to make a fortune, his finest hour will always be his magical week at Royal Birkdale, when he earned nothing but the cheers of his countrymen.

Issue date: July 27, 1998  

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