Justin Rose’s 72nd-hole pitch-in to finish tied for fourth at the 1998 British Open at Royal Birkdale is prominently featured in hype videos for this week’s tournament.
It’s also the first item on Justin Rose’s career highlights—a brilliant marriage of good fortune and fine execution, a flash of future promise.
Rose, 12th in the Official World Golf Ranking, returns to the site of his big stage debut with hopes of winning, naturally.
While, in the fullness of history, the T4 finish as an amateur is an apparent jumpstart to Rose’s career, it didn’t look that way for a long time. Rose missed 21 cuts to begin his professional career. He was a bit player on the European Tour for many years. He didn’t win a major championship until 15 years after his Birkdale heroics.
“It’s disappointing…I think maybe the expectation for a number of years afterwards took its toll coming back, trying to live up to it. In some ways, I look back and I try to model it. The freedom I had that particular week, the confidence I had in my short game, the innocence in which I played the game, I think, is kind of still a model.
“When I looked at my performance here when I was 17, it was very much free, playing with freedom and using my natural ability.”
While Rose’s comments pertain specifically to lackluster play at The Open in the wake of his splendid 1998 showing, we might be able to extend those remarks to his early career. While he was victorious on the European Tour sooner, he didn’t hoist a PGA Tour trophy until the 2010 Memorial Tournament—some 12 years after Royal Birkdale.
All of this begs the question: Would Rose have been off had Royal Birkdale never happened? What if he’d merely missed the cut and stayed under the radar, free to develop without pressure, scrutiny, and expectation?
Here’s what Rose said about his years in the wilderness.
“I think that the innocence was quickly taken away from me by missing those cuts and the game became difficult, and then I tried really hard to live up to that achievement. But I feel like now I’m back to the situation in my career where, yes, I still have a lot to prove to myself, but I have a bit more freedom in which to do it.
“I’m not trying to prove myself to anybody other than myself. So I think that gives me the freedom to go out and play weeks like this a lot more comfortably than in years past.”
So, it’s complicated. While brilliance as a 17-year-old amateur showed him early in his career he could compete with the world’s best, it also placed a tremendous weight on his shoulders. Maybe the Birkdale brilliance was the best thing for his career and maybe it wasn’t, but a one-sided reading of the history fails to acknowledge all the ripples of the stone cast into a pond some 19 years ago.