When he ran in a 10-foot par putt on Carnoustie's home hole before a few scattered spectators in the gloaming last Friday, 18-year-old Englishman Justin Rose knew he had missed his 23rd cut in 25 events as a professional. But as he acknowledged the sympathetic applause he has grown accustomed to, Rose didn't feel the empty sense of failure that so often accompanies it. Instead, he realized that a year that had turned from ecstacy to agony was finally over.
"There's no point in talking about an event that happened two years ago, is there?" Rose joked ruefully after his round. "I wasn't sure before, but now I know it's the end of something, and I can go forward."
Ever since he holed a 45-yard pitch for birdie on the 72nd hole at the 1998 British Open at Royal Birkdale, Rose has been the hostage of one of the most electrifying moments in the history of the world's oldest championship. The shot capped a wondrous fourth-place finish by the then 17-year-old amateur, and when the ball disappeared, the explosion from the overflowing grandstand unofficially produced the loudest roar ever heard at a major championship. Clearly, the hero-starved British crowd had taken the finishing flourish as a sign that Rose was the long-awaited successor to Nick Faldo, and the youngster's exuberant reaction—looking heavenward with arms outstretched—added to the sense of destiny. When Rose surrendered to the euphoria the following day by turning professional, he became, in the words of normally restrained R&A secretary Sir Michael Bonallack, "a young player who hopefully can match Tiger Woods." Rose indeed left the amateur game with an exit as perfect in its way as Woods's after his third straight U.S. Amateur triumph, and like Woods, he set up enormous expectations.
Rose hasn't even come close to meeting them. In the week after his miraculous finish at Royal Birkdale, at the European tour's Dutch Open, Rose followed a bleary-eyed 77 with a brilliant 65, only to miss the cut by one. The next week he went to the Volvo Scandinavian Masters, where on the 36th hole he three-putted to miss by one again. Those who closely followed Rose's subsequent ordeal wonder if one shot saved could have set him on a different track, but from that point the young man from the small town of Hook, 30 miles southwest of London, was exposed as callow and fragile. An outbreak of sprayed drives and erratic putting led to a runaway train of missed cuts, which only picked up steam as Rose kept taking the sponsors' exemptions available to him from the fame he had won at the Open. Even in the only European tour event in which he qualified for the final two rounds—the Compaq European Grand Prix in June—he shot 82 and 73 on the weekend and finished last. It wasn't until Rose demoted himself to the minor league Challenge tour that he came anywhere near to recapturing the magic he had displayed at last year's British, placing fourth at the Diners Club Austrian Open in June. Rose has never emerged from the bottom of the European tour in driving accuracy and greens hit in regulation and is last (173rd) in scoring, with an average of 76.23. Players and caddies call him Justin Vite, because his only way into European tour events has been through those sponsors' exemptions. His official winnings are $10,419.
By the time Rose came to Carnoustie, most observers had come to regard him as a sadly mishandled prodigy who would have been better off playing in the U.S. college ranks or focusing his early pro career on the Challenge tour. They blame his father, Ken, who put a club in his son's hand when he was a toddler and—despite not having taken up the game himself until his son was born—has remained his primary swing coach. Heads shook when Justin signed with Carnegie International, an Edinburgh-based management company that also gave his father a position as fulltime consultant. Says Ken, "It's natural that people are judging us, but no one is really in a position to judge." Adds Justin, "My father has only been a help to my golf."
At Carnoustie, Rose became an even more topical cautionary tale because 16-year-old Zane Scotland of the host country had qualified. "I hope he [Scotland] doesn't finish fourth and want to turn pro," wisecracked Payne Stewart, before turning serious on the subject of Rose. "Justin has to take baby steps. You can't start running with the big dogs if you're not quite ready."
Considering the microscope Rose has been under, it's easy to imagine him transformed into a sullen, distrustful adolescent plagued with facial tics, rashes and regrets. But while Rose admits to a lot of sleepless nights, he is no haunted head case. On the contrary, he is clearly an extraordinarily composed, articulate and courteous young man who still lives with his parents, has plenty of friends in and out of golf and has never been known to let his poor play infringe on his playing partners.
"I admire Justin so much for how he has dealt with all this," says his 14-year-old sister, Margie, who joined her parents, maternal grandparents and "Rose" T-shirt-wearing junior golfers from the North Hants Golf Club, the course that Justin grew up on, at Carnoustie. "He's under a lot of pressure, but he always considers other people first. Sometimes he says that he needs to get meaner, and once he said, 'Nice guys finish last,' but I hope he never changes."
Justin thinks he already has. "I feel a lot tougher," he says. "I can take anything that anybody throws at me, hopefully. I hope I didn't go through all this for nothing."
Still, even those who know him best wonder why his road has been so difficult. "I know Justin is very strong, but I worry that he is trying too hard to please his father and me," says his mother, Anne. "We talk a lot, but when I asked him if he didn't want us to come watch him, he said, 'Please don't ever ask me mat again. I always want you there.'