PINEHURST, N.C. — It wasn’t one shot that won Justin Rose the US Open last year, although the 4-iron he launched on the final hole from 229 yards never left the flagstick and set up his clinching par.
In a way, it wasn’t the 280 other strokes he took at Merion that won him the tournament, either. Rose, and every US Open champion before him, laid the groundwork long before the winning putt dropped.
The practice time spent, nobody else around, but no shortcuts being taken. The sacrifices made, personally and, too frequently, by family members. The hardships overcome and all the hours involved, honing a skill and chasing a dream.
Looking back, the short putt Rose made on the 18th hole at Merion wasn’t all that difficult. It was one he had attempted before. And made before, time after time after time.
“I’ve been striving my whole life, really, to win a major championship,” Rose said last year, after taking his first major title with a two-shot victory over Phil Mickelson and Jason Day. “I’ve holed a putt to win hundreds of thousands of times on the putting green at home. Pretty happy it was a 2-incher at the last.”
Membership in the major champions club is difficult to attain. Now, with the 114th US Open set to start Thursday at Pinehurst No. 2, Rose will attempt an even tougher challenge. Only five players have ever repeated as US Open champion, and we’re celebrating the 25th anniversary of the last time it happened. Curtis Strange, who won the 1988 US Open at The Country Club in Brookline, followed it with another victory a year later, at Oak Hill Country Club.
Five players have won at least two US Opens since Strange repeated in 1989. But none of those five — Payne Stewart, Lee Janzen, Ernie Els, Retief Goosen, and Tiger Woods — won in back-to-back years.
“I think the longer it goes, the more fortunate I realize I was,” Strange said. “You can go the obvious reasons: It’s a year removed. Different golf course. The talent level has always been deep. You have to be at the right place at the right time. Be fortunate.
“I’m not a Miami Dolphins-type person. I’m not rooting against him. I’m not drinking champagne Sunday night. If Justin would happen to do it this year, that would be fantastic.”
Rose hasn’t won since leaving Merion with the trophy, but he hasn’t played poorly, either. He had five more finishes of 17th or better to close the 2013 season, and has seven such finishes this season. He tied for 14th at the Masters, and tied for fourth at the Players Championship, his best 2014 finish on the PGA Tour.
Ranked No. 3 in the world the week after winning the US Open, Rose is now ranked No. 9.
Aside from a two-stroke penalty that was issued and then rescinded before the final round at the Players, his game hasn’t produced all that much attention for Rose this year. That certainly won’t be the case this week.
“It’s special to come here as the reigning US Open champion,” Rose said, after spending two days here a few weeks ago on a much-needed scouting trip. “I didn’t play [the US Open at Pinehurst] in ’99 or ’05, so I really didn’t have a frame of reference, but I really enjoy natural-style golf . . . and I can see exactly what this test is going to be about.”
What he’ll see is a course that’s much different from Merion, which played less than 7,000 yards and had ankle-choking rough just off the fairway. There’s no rough at Pinehurst No. 2, which has a scorecard yardage of 7,562; after a 2011 renovation by Ben Crenshaw and Bill Coore, any ball not in the fairway will likely sit in a vast collection of sandy waste areas.
This is still the US Open, though, and Rose and the 155 other players will need the right balance: hit it straight off the tee, have a great short game, embrace pars.
“My preparation’s going to be key,” said Rose. “It’s developing and designing a game plan that you believe will hold up over 72 holes that you can execute, that suits your game, and that will produce the winning score.
“That’s what I did at Merion. I produced a game plan to shoot even par, and that held up [his winning total was 1-over-par 281]. I need to do the same at Pinehurst.”
The last time the US Open was held at Pinehurst No. 2, in 2005, Goosen was the reigning champion, and took a three-shot lead into the final round, 18 holes away from joining Strange and four others — Willie Anderson (1903-05), Bobby Jones (1929-30), Ralph Guldahl (1937-38), and Ben Hogan (1950-51) — as a back-to-back US Open champion. Instead, Goosen shot a final-round 81.
Back-to-back is one of the primary themes this year, with the US Women’s Open also being held at Pinehurst No. 2 next week, the first time both tournaments will be played at the same venue. The men take the stage first, and Rose would love to be in contention Sunday, with a chance to win again.
“I hope so,” Rose said. “Been channeling some Curtis Strange, ’88-89, so hopefully [I] can be the next guy to do it.”