Commentary

Rose arrives as man on Father's Day

Updated: June 17, 2013, 2:02 AM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPN.com

ARDMORE, Pa. -- In the gloaming, after a maddening and mud-caked test of golf and human will was complete, Kate Rose stood on the 18th green at Merion Golf Club holding a bouquet of flowers in one hand and a brown box inscribed with the words "Jack Nicklaus Medal" in the other.

A champion British gymnast in her day, Kate wore a striped yellow sun dress as she spoke of the red, white and blue dream her husband and countryman, Justin, had just lived out at Phil Mickelson''s expense on his 43rd birthday.

"This is everything," Kate said. "We live in America, and our two children were born here. It means the world to us to win the United States Open."

But this wasn't about the end result -- Rose's first career major championship in 37 tries -- as much as it was about the man who inspired the journey, the father who first put a golf club in Justin's hands when the boy wasn't even a year old.

Ken Rose. The father who succumbed to leukemia 11 years before his son pointed to the sky above Merion, tears in his eyes and a lump bigger than a Titleist in his throat as he wondered what his old man thought of him now.

Saturday night, Justin had texted his mother, Annie, to tell her, "Let's do it for Dad tomorrow."

"That would be fantastic," Annie texted back.

On Father's Day morning, Kate talked with her husband about Ken Rose before Justin headed to the course.

"We just talked about Justin acting out there the way his father had taught him to act," Kate said, "and how we're teaching our young children to act."

The kids were back in Florida, so it was just Kate, Justin and Ken Rose against the world in the final round, or so it must have seemed. The whole place wanted Mickelson to win his first Open title about as much as Phil himself wanted Mickelson to win it, and the crowd couldn't stop Rose any more than the Medinah crowd could stop him from stunning Phil at the Ryder Cup.

[+] EnlargeRose
Rob Carr/Getty ImagesWith a final-round 70, Justin Rose captured his first major title.

Not even Mickelson's magical chip-in for eagle at No. 10, the shot that made Lefty jump like he jumped at the 2004 Masters, could deny Rose a moment he has been waiting for ever since he famously holed out his own chip shot to finish fourth at the 1998 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, where the overnight 17-year-old sensation decided to turn pro … well, overnight. He promptly missed 21 consecutive cuts, suggesting that he might be one of those child actors who never quite grow up. "I was just trying not to fade away, really," Rose said. "I just didn't want to be known as a one-hit wonder, flash in the pan." But there he was Sunday, a full-blown man at age 32. In his words, Rose "came back with birdie, birdie straight on top of [Mickelson's] eagle," a one-two punch that mirrored the late hooks to the body he landed on Phil at Medinah.

Mickelson made a mess for himself on the 121-yard 13th, somehow missing the green with a wedge in his hands, and again on the 422-yard 15th, when his chip from on the green and over a mound nearly drilled his caddie as he yanked the pin out of the hole.

Lefty was destined to finish second at the Open for a record sixth time. Rose? He needed par on the monstrous, 511-yard par-4 18th hole to put himself in position to win, and he nailed a drive so picture perfect it settled near the plaque commemorating Hogan's enduring 1-iron shot in 1950.

"When I came over the hill and saw my ball lying in the middle of the fairway," Rose told the fans gathered for his trophy presentation, "I thought, 'This is my moment.' I've seen that Ben Hogan photograph a million times."

When Mickelson won the 2005 PGA Championship at Baltusrol, he took his 4-wood and tapped the plaque in the 18th fairway that pays tribute to Jack Nicklaus' famous 1-iron at the 1967 Open. Rose didn't tap the Hogan plaque with his 4-iron, but he honored it all the same.

"I felt like I did Hogan justice with the golf shot I hit in there at least," Rose said.

It didn't matter that the approach trickled into the greenside rough. It only mattered that Rose got up-and-down, and then looked skyward for his private Father's Day conversation with his old man.

At that moment, Justin didn't much care if Mickelson somehow rallied to win, or force a playoff. "I felt like I had conducted myself in a way that he would be proud of," Rose said of his father, "win or lose."

As Mickelson prepared to attempt a pitch-in to tie at 18, Rose lost himself in the history of the Merion clubhouse, the black-and-white photos of Hogan and the rest. Soon enough Mickelson was a heartbroken birthday boy one more time, and Rose was back to thinking about the man he said "was an inspiration the whole day."

He spoke with his mother on the phone, Annie and Justin losing themselves in what Rose called "a flood of tears." In the weeks before he died, Ken Rose had told his wife, 'Don't worry, Justin will be OK. He'll know what to do."

Justin brought some of his trophies to his father in the hospital. All these years later, the son was holding a trophy that hadn't been claimed by an Englishman since Tony Jacklin won at Hazeltine in 1970.

"I've holed a putt to win a major championship hundreds of thousands of times on the putting green at home," Rose said. This one was the real thing. His coach, Sean Foley, had sent a text to Rose before the final round that read, "Go out there and be the man your dad taught you how to be, and be the man that your kids can be proud of and look up to."

Rose did just that. He battled Mickelson, and Merion, and prevailed on this brutal course with a score of 1-over 281, a score that was about a dozen shots north of the predicted outcome.

The course steamrolled the field, and Rose didn't much care. He said that he "fell in love" with Merion while basking in the solitude of some early practice rounds, and that he also fell hard for the idea of winning a big one on Father's Day.

"Justin's father was a great guy with very clear morals," Kate Rose said as her husband posed with the trophy and one of Merion's wicker baskets on the 18th green.

"He taught Justin to work hard, don't expect anything to be handed to you, and to treat people the right way. And that family has to come first."

So family did come first at the U.S. Open, right after Justin Rose made the biggest par of his golfing life inside a 511-yard prison camp.

"I just couldn't help but look up to the heavens and think that my old dad, Ken, had something to do with it," Justin said. "Today was about him." Actually, Sunday wasn't only about Ken Rose. It was also about Ken Rose's 17-year-old prodigy, a silly boy who grew into one hell of a man.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »

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