Late-bloomer takes a thorny path to the top

Late-bloomer takes a thorny path to the top

Justin Rose's win at the US Open underlines a golfing lesson

There was not much Merion Golf Club could do to rattle Justin Rose, who was kicked by a chorus line of courses in his late teens. So complete was his failure during his first two years as a professional, the caddies on the European Tour snidely referred to him as ‘Justin Vite,’ a nod to his dependence on the kindness of sponsors to get into tournaments.

There is a lesson in Rose’s triumph at the US Open that, it is hoped, will not get lost in the hullabaloo about the 19-year-old amateur Michael Kim’s top-20 finish there or the 14-year-old amateur Guan Tianlang’s star turn in April at the Masters.

Youth thrills, but talent lasts.

In 1999, when an 18-year-old Rose was in the middle of missing 21 consecutive cuts, Payne Stewart told reporters in Britain that teenagers were not ready to compete against the world’s best players.

“Maturity is something that comes with time,” said, Stewart, a two-time major winner at the time. “I am 42 years old, and I’m just maturing.”

Stewart was dead by the end of that year, killed in an airplane accident, but his message echoed through the cedars and pines at Merion. Five of the top 16 finishers were in their 40s: Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els, 43; Steve Stricker, 46; Lee Westwood, 40, and John Senden, 42. That was the same number of 20-something golfers in the top 16.

Stricker, winless in 59 majors, was able to shrug off his tie for eighth because his self-worth was not tied up in his result.

“Golf is not the thing in my life as it once was,” he said, adding: “We’ve got kids and wives and other things like that that’s more important. So I can get over this rather quickly.”

That is often not the case with the younger players, who are lavished with attention and money before they have a clue who they are. Is it any wonder they struggle to separate the person from the performance? Rose, 32, described the start of his pro career as traumatic, saying, “There’s a lot of water under the bridge.”

He added: “I’ve never really talked about it because you don’t want to admit to that being the case. But I think when you’ve got past something, you can talk openly about it. And it’s sort of in a moment like this, I can talk about how I feel like I’ve come full circle confidence-wise and game development-wise.”

For prodigies, the riddle is this: Which comes first, the expectations or the excellence? In the wake of Rose’s tie for fourth at the 1998 British Open as a 17-year-old amateur, he was hailed as Britain’s answer to Tiger Woods by no less than the secretary of the Royal and Ancient.

Guan, an eighth-grader who is called China’s answer to Woods, has played in four PGA Tour events in the past three months and made the cut in two. He withdrew from qualifying for the US Open, ideally so that he does not become too focused on impressing at the expense of improving.

The problem with prodigies successfully competing against adults is that people tend to forget how young these golfers are. If success becomes the expectation, how can they learn to embrace the failures that are the greatest learning tool of all?

“Golf can be a cruel game,” Rose said after his win. “And definitely I have had the ups and downs, but I think that ultimately it’s made me stronger and able to handle the situations like today, for example.”

As the best golfers in the world struggled to make pars at Merion, golf’s cruelty came into sharp focus. It is hard to imagine anybody who tuned in to the weekend’s telecasts being moved to take up the game so that he, too, can make an 8 on a par 4, as Stricker did last Sunday.

Rose said he drew inspiration from another prodigy who detoured from his fast-track path. Adam Scott, who is 14 days older than Rose, won the 2004 Players Championship before his 24th birthday and toiled for nine more years before claiming his first major title at this year’s Masters.

“I consider him a contemporary of mine and a great friend of mine,” Rose said of Scott. “He sent me a text message after I congratulated him on winning the Masters, and he said to me, 'This is your time, this is your time, this is our time, to win these tournaments.' At 32, we have been around quite a while. We paid our dues in some senses.”

Delayed gratification can be a wonderful gift, allowing golfers the luxury to develop perspective, perseverance and personalities along with their games. Forget the giant leaps forward that grab the headlines: Rose described his progress as “just one-foot-in-front-of-another fashion.”

“I believed in myself inherently; deep down, I always knew that I had a talent to play the game,” he said. “And I simply thought that if I put talent and hard work together, surely it will work out in the end, in the long run.”

It worked out just as Seve Ballesteros said it would. In 1999, Ballesteros ran into Rose at an airport and told him not to get down on himself. “I know there are big things ahead for you,” said Ballesteros, who died two years ago. Fourteen long years later, Rose proved him right.

“It’s not necessarily the trophy that feels so great,” Rose said. “It’s knowing that you’ve answered the doubts in your own head, you’ve answered the questions, you’ve taken on the challenge and you’ve risen to it. So those feelings of self-accomplishment are great in the moment, and I think that that’s what inspires you to try and win more golf tournaments.”