From the shy 18-year-old who shot to fame in the 1998 Open with his dramatic 50-yard birdie from a lie in the rough on the final hole at Royal Birkdale, Justin Rose’s career has been carried forward with control, composure, and no small amount of deep thinking.
From child prodigy to Olympic gold medalist – 10-time PGA Tour winner to being appointed MBE in the 2017 New Year Honours List – Rose’s pursuit of golfing brilliance has taken him to number one in the British and World rankings. He currently sits fourth in the world.
And yet, as the 39-year-old Johannesburg-born Brit admits to RSNG, the biggest battle of all was – and continues to be – the one he fights with himself.
Just like every golfer who sets foot onto the tee mat, the battle isn’t with a playing partner or any other competitors on the course. Golf, in a way that few other pursuits can parallel, is a sport fought against oneself, and as he approaches a big age milestone, that challenge is evolving by the day…
RSNG How tough is it to win on the PGA Tour nowadays, with so many great players about?
JUSTIN ROSE, WORLD NUMBER FOUR ‘It’s always difficult to pick up victories on the PGA Tour. At any one time there are at least 10 or 15 players all at the top of their game. It’s tough.’
‘What I find important to remember is that you need to play well between April and September. That’s really when you are going to stand out in the sport, by winning the majors, the world championships, the events that count towards the Fed-Ex Cup. So, if I am able to play my best golf throughout the middle of the calendar, then hopefully that sees me good.’
‘Your mindset switches from things that you do well and can exploit, to things that are letting you down and need to be compensated for’
RSNG You’re approaching 40 and although that’s theoretically in your prime as a golfer, there are a lot of younger players coming to the fore – do you have to adjust to the competition at all?
JR ‘No, I don’t think that I have to adjust, because I feel that my best is good enough. It’s more a battle with myself to figure out how to produce my best golf more regularly – that’s really the key. Obviously, that’s what those guys are doing, they are finding a way to play more consistently and at a higher level, but it is my own battle, and I can’t waste too much time thinking about others.’
‘The older you get, the more your mindset switches from the things that you do well and can exploit, to the things that are letting you down and need to be compensated for.’
‘I went through a period where my iron play was affecting things, and funnily enough my short game has always been one of my biggest strengths. So that was always a pretty easy fix and, after learning so much, I was so enthusiastic, and I went into a few tournaments where I was looking to move forward, rather than perform. I have been able to grow from that and take it into each year.’
‘What is certain though, is that every year brings a different challenge. It is much like a runner dealing with a calf strain one year, then perhaps back trouble the next. Each season becomes categorised by a few different things.’
RSNG So, do you feel the demands of age?
JR ‘No, certainly not in the same way that you would if you were a footballer or a rugby player. Obviously golf is a sport that ends up being quite gentle on the body, and by its very nature of involving a lot of walking, it prolongs natural mobility and health.’
‘As you get older, the psychology of golf helps more as well. Experience cannot be bought or rushed, so the older players, in theory, have a psychological advantage in many ways. That said, there is the classic lack of fear in some younger golfers so a few might argue that they are, sometimes, better equipped to deal with the pressure situations.’
‘Being crowned with that Olympic medal… for me to be living it, it was a wild moment’
RSNG Do you have a favourite golf experience?
JR ‘I would struggle to pick one, and every tournament has its own merits. Winning something as an individual is an incredibly special feeling because it is all your own work, and those titles stand as something very special for me and my family.’
‘Obviously Ryder Cup competition turns that concept completely on its head, and I think the Olympic experience as well was something that felt very unique, and it was a brilliant thing to go through.’
RSNG How was it unique?
JR ‘Well I went into the Rio Olympics in 2016 with the feeling of being an Olympian and really just taking a once in a lifetime opportunity, because four years down the line, there are no guarantees. So, I wanted to make the most of it.’
‘I got myself into contention and once I did, it all became pretty real that I had a chance to win a medal – and not just a medal, but a gold medal and it was just a surreal experience standing there on the podium.’
‘Then, bending down and someone putting a medal around your neck, it was a scene that I had seen for many years, given for many different sporting achievements. So being crowned with that Olympic medal… for me to be living it, it was a wild moment.’
‘What really amazed me was when I got back to the States and started playing the Fed-Ex Cup events – it really began to hit me, that people had watched it. They had paid attention and people were into it. Even if the top pro golfers in the world weren’t necessarily that bothered, the general golfing public really, really enjoyed it.’
‘If I compare it to the US Open major win that I got in 2013, I almost feel like the reaction for winning the Olympic gold medal was tenfold.’
‘That proved to me the fact that sport doesn’t always play out the way you think it will. Sometimes you will garner more satisfaction from the small tournaments and the small wins than you do the big ones.’
RSNG What is your best gold medal story?
JR ‘The normal reaction I get from people when I show them the medal is: “Wow, isn’t it heavy!”, but my overriding memory of it is that I came back from the golf course with it one day and we were having a bit of party back in England with a few friends. So, my little boy has the medal with him, and he is out in the garden and he is putting it over this statue – we had rented this house.’
‘He’s got the medal over the head of the statue, but he can’t quite reach and then he drops it and it starts clanking against the concrete, chipping the side of it. He looked absolutely terrified, but I said to him, “Don’t worry, this medal will be yours one day anyway, and you can point at the dents and tell this story!”’
‘Ultimately, it is just a piece of metal, and the stories behind the successes, and how they are celebrated, are the important elements.’
RSNG How important is it to go into a tournament fresh?
JR ‘There is a real psychology to golf in that you want to be in the right place in the time leading up to a big tournament, so your tournament preparation doesn’t begin on the day you turn up and tee off at the course. Very often your true preparation begins a week or so before that on a different course, often in a different country.’
‘It’s strange to think you are training your brain to relax, evolve and build confidence so far ahead and in a completely different location, but the value of going into a tournament off the back of success, or knowing you are hitting the ball well, is really big and it’s actually an incredibly tangible thing to get hold of.’
‘My Dad would set challenges, like when breaking 70 for nine holes… I think my first prize for that was a train set!’
RSNG Did you play any other sports when you were growing up or were all of your attentions focused on golf?
JR ‘No, I did play other sports and I think that is something which is very important for kids, because we specialise very early in sports and kids are turning professional at such young ages.’
‘It wasn’t until about the age of 14 that I started to concentrate solely on golf. At that point football, tennis and cricket fell by the wayside and I had golf as the focus of my attention.’
RSNG How old were you when you first picked up a golf club?
JR ‘I had been swinging a little plastic golf club around the age of about one and pictures exist of me with a big mop of curly blonde hair – yep, really! I started playing golf for real and Hartley Whitney Golf Club… nine holes there from the age of about five, pretty much every day. My dad was allowed to go out and play golf if he was taking me with him, so it was a pretty good excuse for him.’
‘He dangled that carrot with golf, virtually bribing me to keep me interested. He would set my challenges, like when breaking 70 for nine holes… I think my first prize for that was a train set! But every time we went, he would keep things fun and if I would knock in a putt, then I would get a chocolate bar on the way home.’
WHAT NEXT? Check out Justin Rose’s warm-up routine for a round of tournament round of golf.