BOSTON — Justin Rose has always described his final shot of the 1998 British Open as a “fairytale ending.” And while that descriptive is over-used in the realm of sports, Rose was, as they say across the pond, spot on.
On that memorable Sunday — playing along the Irish Sea at Royal Birkdale in Southport, England — Rose, then a 17-year-old amateur, took aim at the 18th green from deep rough 65 yards away and somehow bounced it onto the green and into the cup. The miracle shot enabled Rose to finish his isle’s most illustrious golf tournament in a tie for fourth place — and the youngster stretched his arms to the heavens to acknowledge the improbable finish.
The stellar performance propelled the teen directly into the pro ranks and expectations were hardly modest. England believed it now had its own prodigy who would soon challenge the young American superstar, Tiger Woods. But if Royal Birkdale marked the end of one fairytale, the next chapter could only be described as grim. Rose missed the cut — and, of course, a payday — at his first 21 professional tournaments.
The luster had totally worn off and the attention of fans had long ago strayed elsewhere by the time Rose won his first tournament, in South Africa, almost four years later. That triggered another ascension — he made it to number 33 in the world rankings — and, eventually, a leap across the Atlantic to test himself on the American PGA Tour.
Rose didn’t exactly fail that test, but he certainly didn’t ace it either. You can make an awful lot of money — many millions — as a solid, journeyman who plays some fine rounds and occasionally contends. When he did contend, he tended to falter down the stretch, an irony that may have convinced him he had already used up his quota of miracles. Entering the 2010 season, he still had never won a PGA event and that fourth-place finish at Royal Birkdale remained his best showing in a major championship.
F. Scott Fitzgerald never claimed to know much about English lives and Justin Rose has turned out to have a second act. This season, a dozen years removed from his glorious introduction to the golfing public, Rose has rediscovered the sizzle in his game. He won his first PGA tournament this spring and then earlier this month won another.
The second victory propelled his 2010 earnings to more than $3 million, trailing only golf titans Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson. But far more important, it qualified him to play in the 150th British Open, beginning Thursday at historic St. Andrews in Scotland. And while British books still anoint Tiger as the favorite, Rose suddenly finds himself amid the next batch of contenders at odds between 20 and 25-1.
Rose’s re-emergence in the game’s upper ranks comes at what is a particularly dismal time for English sports. England’s World Cup soccer team went to South Africa with hopes high but, after a deflating tie with a country that doesn’t even call the game by its rightful name, returned home to nationwide scorn. It seems the so-called “Golden Generation” was fool’s gold. And the nation’s once-gloried rugby team has slipped to number six in the world and, since late 2004, has had four coaches and a shabby record with only 29 wins in 66 contests.
Then there is the annual embarrassment that is Wimbledon. The English title drought on the historic grass is now 33 years for an English woman and 74 years for an English man. Indeed their tennis prospects are so dim that the English have claimed a Scotsman as their great hope. (If Andy Murray ever does break through at Wimbledon, it will be interesting to see how the Scottish feel about sharing the glory.)
It is hard to posit a convincing reason for the demise of a sporting empire, at least beyond the fact that England is an island with a modest population and limited resources. Some posit that the remnants of its class system cripples English teams by largely restricting an already limited pool of athletes to one class, be it upper for rugby or working for soccer.
Moreover, England takes an almost perverse pride in its parochial obsessions. While it will attain fever pitch when its cricketers try to retain the Ashes in Australia come November, it has failed — unlike its major Western European neighbors Spain, France, Italy and Germany — to develop a competitive international basketball program.
Golf is the sport that looms as the notable exception to all its sporting gloom and doom. There are now four English golfers ranked in the world top 10 — exactly as many as Americans—and that foursome doesn’t even include the torrid Rose, who has now risen to number 16.
Yet the British Open, of late, has proved a stumbling ground for English golfers. None have won the tournament since Nick Faldo claimed the last of his three titles back in 1992. How galling it must be for the English to watch as an Irishman, a Scotsman, a South African, an Australian, a Zimbabwean and nine different Americans take home the Claret Jug during that English drought.
Rose tees off Thursday — on the cusp of his 30th birthday — paired with the three-time British Open champ Woods. In the dozen years since Rose’s Royal Birkdale moment, he has failed to qualify for this tournament four times, missed the 36-hole cut on two other occasions and has never managed another top-10 finish.
But this time the British Open might prove to be more than just a sentimental journey. And reveal that perhaps a fairytale beginning — after a long and winding road — can sometimes lead to a fairytale ending too.