ARDMORE, Pa. – Justin Rose could see all the pieces coming together in this U.S. Open.
The sun was breaking through the clouds Sunday evening at Merion as he stood in the 18th fairway with a one-shot lead. That famous Ben Hogan plaque was in front of him, a road marker bronze that one pure swing and two putts might be all that stood between Rose and his first major championship.
That and Phil Mickelson in the final group behind him.
Rose followed his script to perfection with a par. So did Mickelson, who can’t seem to win a U.S. Open no matter how hard he tries.
Rose drilled a 4-iron just through the green and used a 3-wood to bunt the ball to an inch of the cup for par. Mickelson, who made two careless bogeys on the back nine, needed a birdie on an 18th hole that didn’t yield a single one all weekend at Merion.
“What a piece of silverware to be sitting to my right,” Rose said, gazing at the shiny trophy after closing with an even-par 70.
“It’s just an incredible experience and a childhood dream come true at this point.”
It was a recurring nightmare for Mickelson, extending his record collection of silver medals in the major he covets.
“Heartbreak,” Mickelson said on his 43rd birthday. “This is tough to swallow after coming so close. This was my best chance of all. I had a golf course I really liked. I felt this was as good as opportunity as you could ask for. It really hurts.”
With remarkable poise and three pure swings under pressure, Rose became the first Englishman in 43 years to win America’s national championship.
Mickelson extended his U.S. Open record with his sixth runner-up finish, and this one stung. It was the first time he had the outright lead going into the final round. He holed a wedge out of deep rough for an eagle to take back the lead as he headed to the back nine.
But he flew the green with a wedge on the par-3 13th hole and made bogey on the easiest hole at Merion. He tried to hit wedge off the green on the 15th hole to give him a good shot at par, only he hit it so hard he made another bogey. And he never caught up. He wonders if he’ll ever get another chance.
“At 43 and coming so close five times, it would have changed the way I look at this tournament altogether and the way I would have looked at my record,” Mickelson said, dreaming one last time of winning. “Except that I just keep feeling heartbreak.”
Rose was pacing in the scoring area, waiting for Mickelson to finish, wondering if he could catch him. At one point, he looked above the TV to that famous photo of Hogan hitting 1-iron into the 18th green in the 1950 U.S. Open to set up a playoff that he won the next day.
“When I walked over the hill and saw my drive sitting perfectly in the middle of the fairway, with the sun coming out, it was kind of almost fitting,” Rose said. “And I just felt like at that point it was a good iron shot onto the green, two putts – like Hogan did – and possibly win this championship. So I felt like I did myself justice, and probably put enough of a good swing where Ben Hogan might have thought it was a decent shot, too.”
As usual, someone’s big moment in the U.S. Open came at Mickelson’s expense.
All the stars were aligned. None of the putts fell in.
Lefty somehow blasted out of the rough to 8 feet on the 16th hole, but he missed the putt. His tee shot on the par-3 17th was just short enough that it didn’t catch the funnel toward the hole, and he missed a long birdie putt. From the rough left of the 18th fairway, he couldn’t quite reach the green and to chip in from about 40 yards.
With his caddie tending the flag, Mickelson’s chip raced by the cup, and Rose was the U.S. Open champion.
Mickelson wound up with a bogey on the 18th for a 74 and tied for second with Jason Day, who closed with a 71.
Day appeared to salvage his round by chipping in for bogey on the 11th hole, and he was still in the picture when he made a 12-foot par putt on the 17th to stay one shot behind. But he put his approach into the bunker left of the 18th green, blasted out to about 7 feet and missed the putt.
The back nine was a four-way battle that included Hunter Mahan, who played in the last group with Mickelson. He was one shot out of the lead until he three-putted the 15th hole for a double bogey, and then closed with back-to-back bogeys when his hopes were gone. Mahan had a 75 and tied for fourth with Billy Horschel (74), Ernie Els (69) and Jason Dufner, who had a 67 despite making triple bogey on the 15th hole.
Rose finished at 1-over 281, eight shots higher than David Graham’s winning score in 1981 when the U.S. Open was last held at Merion. The shortest course for a major championship in nearly a decade held up just fine. It was the third time in the last four years that no one broke par in the toughest test of golf.
The last Englishman to win the U.S. Open was Tony Jacklin at Hazeltine in 1970, though Rose added to recent dominance of the Union Jack at the U.S. Open as the third winner in four years. The others were Graeme McDowell (2010) and Rory McIlroy (2011) of Northern Ireland.
Walking off the 18th green, he looked through the patchy clouds and pointed to the sky, a nod to his late father, Ken, who died of leukemia in September 2002.
“I couldn’t help but look up at the heavens and think my old man Ken had something to do with it,” Rose said.
It seems like more than 15 years ago when Rose first starred on the major scene as a 17-year-old amateur who chipped in on the final hole at Royal Birkdale in the 1998 British Open and tied for fourth. He turned pro the next week, and then missed the cut in his first 21 tournaments. But he stayed the course and slowly picked off big tournaments – including the AT&T National in 2010 just down the road at Aronimink.
The U.S. Open takes him to another level and moves him to No. 3 in the world.
Tiger Woods turned out to be nothing more than an afterthought. He hit out-of-bounds on his second hole and made triple bogey, and closed with a 74 to finish at 13-over 293, his worst score as a pro in the U.S. Open, and matching his worst score in any major.
The score wasn’t nearly that bad considering the golf course, with its tricky contours on the greens and punishing rough.
Mickelson wore all black when he arrived for the final round, and in a brief TV interview he said, “The best for me is to play well and have fun.”
Sunday at the U.S. Open is rarely fun.
Just ask Donald, who was only two shots behind starting the final round. It all crumbled when he pulled his tee shot on the par-3 third hole — so long and hard that Donald hit a driver — and struck a standard-bearer. She was on the ground for several minutes, and Donald appeared visibly shaken. He shot 42 on the back nine.
Steve Stricker took his lumps on one hole, and it was ugly. One shot behind, he pushed his tee shot on the par-5 second hole out-of-bounds. After hitting the next tee shot into the fairway, he tried to lay up with a 4-iron and hit a shank out-of-bounds. Stricker had to make a 7-foot putt to escape with a triple-bogey 8.
Former Masters champion Charl Schwartzel, trying to give South Africa a major for the fourth straight year, opened with a birdie and a tie for the lead. That became a distant memory, however, when he dropped seven shots over the seven holes and closed out his front nine with a 42.
Horschel wore pants with octopus prints, and he putted like he had eight arms. Out in 39, he opened the back nine with a pair of three-putts.
For a short time, it looked as though Mickelson might join this parade of pretenders when he three-putted for double bogey twice in three holes on the front nine. And then came his shot out of the rough on the 10th, and he was on his way — but not for long.
Rose made his share of mistakes, too, like the three-putt bogey on the 11th and a horrible shot out of the bunker on the 14th. The difference was his approach into the 12th to 3 feet, followed by a 20-foot birdie putt on the 13th hole.
With Mickelson watching so many putts graze the lip, that cushion was all that Rose needed.
“This is definitely a tough defeat for Phil,” Rose said. “I love the way he plays the game. He plays fearless golf. He keeps everybody guessing.”
But not at a U.S. Open, where it never ends well for him.