Justin Rose put on a display of sheer class as a golfer and a sportsman to consign his early career struggles to history and capture his first major championship with a two-stroke US Open victory over eternal bridesmaid Phil Mickelson and Australian’s Jason Day at a punishing Merion last night.
The 32 year old Englishman, who first rose to fame as a 17-year old amateur when he chipped in at the final hole to finish fourth in the 1998 Open at Royal Birkdale, carded a level par final round 70 to win the title with a one over par total of 281.
His win, the first by an Englishman in a major for 17 years, meant a heart-breaking sixth US Open runner up finish for Mickelson on his 43rd birthday.
But not only did Rose have comforting words for the left-hander, the manner in which he closed out his victory by tapping in from a couple of inches for a closing par before gesturing to the heavens in tribute to his late father Ken, was spine-tingling and an example to youngsters everywhere.
“Yes, the look up to the heavens was absolutely for my dad,” Rose said. “Father’s Day was not lost on me today. You don’t have opportunities to really dedicate a win to someone you love. And today was about him and being Father’s Day.
“I got a beautiful text [from coach Sean Foley] that said go out and be the man your dad taught you to be and be the man that your kids can be proud of and look up to. That’s how I tried to carry myself out there. My dad was the inspiration the whole day.
Ironically for a man carrying five wedges but no driver, Mickelson’s title hopes evaporated when he faced shots of 121 yards to both the par three 13th and tough 15th but made costly bogeys each time to fall a shot behind Rose on two over.
Mickelson then missed a six foot birdie chance at the 16th that would have left him tied for the lead as Rose played the 17th two groups ahead.
But he missed and Rose parred the 17th and then made a stellar par four at the last, hitting sumptuous 220-yard four iron just a few yards from the plaque marking the spot from where Ben Hogan hit his iconic one-iron in 1950.
Rose’s shot almost hit the pin but rolled through the back from where he used a three wood to chip stiff and tap in for a par and a closing 70 that set the target at one over.
“Obviously preparing for this tournament, it’s hard not to play Merion and envision yourself hitting the shot that Hogan did,” Rose said.
“And even in the moment today, that was not lost on me. When I walked over the hill and saw my drive sitting perfectly in the middle of the fairway, with the sun coming out, it was kind of almost fitting.
“And I just felt like at that point it was a good iron shot on to the green, two putts, like Hogan did, and possibly win this championship.
“So I felt like I did myself justice and probably put enough of a good swing where Ben Hogan might have thought it was a decent shot too.
“But obviously it crawled through the back edge and the up‑and‑down, I guess, looked quite easy in the end. But the lie wasn’t too bad.
“But I definitely didn’t want to be chipping it. It was one of those lies that you could stub out quite easily. I got the three‑wood on it and made the tap in kind of nice and easy.”
He resisted the temptation to celebrate victory as Mickelson could still birdie the 17th or 18th to tie.
“I was trying to keep it together, obviously, because I didn’t want to be premature,” Rose said of his dignified gesture to his father, who died of luekaemia 10 years ago. “Phil had two holes to play. But that was my time, the clouds had parted, it was kind of ironic. It was just a beautiful evening. And the way it worked out, I felt like I needed to do that.”
He added later: “Even if Phil had finished birdie, birdie, I just felt like I had done what I could out there. I felt like I sort of put into practice a lot of the lessons that he’s taught me, and I felt like I conducted myself in a way that he would be proud of, win or lose. And that’s what today was about for me in a lot of ways as well.”
Mickelson failed to birdie the 17th from close to 40 feet and then missed the 18th fairway and left himself needing to chip for birdie from short of the final green to force a Monday play-off.
The crowd willed Phil the Thrill to pull off one of his famous miracle chips but it skipped past the pin and through the back and a bogey gave him a 74 that relegated him to tied second with Day (71) on three over.
For Mickelson, who led by a shot overnight from Hunter Mahan, Steve Stricker and former Masters champion Charl Schwartzel, there was a real sense that this could very well have been his last shot at US Open glory
“This one’s probably the toughest for me, because at 43 and coming so close five times, it would have changed way I look at this tournament altogether and the way I would have looked at my record,” Mickelson said. “Except I just keep feeling heartbreak.”
Rose paid tribute to Mickelson the man.
“This is definitely a tough defeat for Phil. Five times or something, I guess now six times second in the U.S. Open. He’s such a great guy to play golf with and to have for the TOUR. I love the way he plays the game. He plays fearless golf. He keeps everybody guessing. He’s entertaining. And I feel fortunate to have been able to beat a world class player that he is on a day like today.
“He’s also on Father’s Day, I mean he really showed the true spirit of fatherhood being at home for his daughter’s graduation earlier in the week and putting a tournament as his second priority and that’s very admirable.”
The final day was a thrilling ride that did justice to the venue where Bobby Jones completed the Grand Slam in 1930.
One by one the leading contenders for the title fell away. Stricker triple bogeyed the second hit his drive out of bounds before also shanking his fourth off the property.
Luke Donald, who was two behind overnight, capitulated early by dropping five shots in a four-hole stretch from the third and finished tied eighth, five behind his player partner after a 75.
With a heavy rain shower dousing the protagonists it came down to Rose, Mickelson, Hunter Mahan and Day.
But Mahan’s short game weaknesses cost him a double bogey at the 15th as well as bogeys at the 17th and 18th and he would finish tied for fourth on five over with Ernie Els (69), Billy Horschel (74) and Jason Dufner, who made five early birdies only to triple bogey the 15th by driving out of bounds en route to a 67.
Day, third in the Masters earlier this year, died a slow death down the stretch. Bogeys at the 11th and 14th hurt him before his chance disappeared with a closing bogey at the 18th for a 71 and a share of second with Mickelson on three over.
Veteran Mickelson started in typically erratic fashion, sandwiching a birdie at the fourth between a brace of three-putt double bogeys at the third and fifth.
When he holed a pitch from 75 yards for an eagle two at the 10th, the title appeared destined to be his at last. But Rose overcame a three-putt bogey at the 11th with birdies at the 12th and 13th to take commands again.
“I think that that point was huge,” Rose said. “Because it just gave me that little bit of leeway playing the last five holes. I kind of knew that no one was going to play the last five perfectly.”
As Mickelson faltered on the 121-yard 13th and the 15th, Rose made bogeys at the 14th and 16th to leave the title race open to the end.
It was fitting that the 18th immortalised by Hogan would decide the championship and Rose’s perfect drive and his majestic four iron, much like the dignified way he celebrated his victory, were worthy of the Merion legend.
The course, which many feared would be torn apart in soft conditions, did not allow even one player to match par, never mind beat it.
“The only moment of fear operationally was that tropical storm,” said USGA Executive Director Mike Davis, referring to last weekend’s torrential rains. “This golf course has never failed. Never failed. Not one time. Never.”