Beware the Brit poised to crash Tiger's patriotic party.
When the inaugural AT&T National begins today at Congressional Country Club, most Beltway golf fans will be focused on the much-decorated duo of tournament host Tiger Woods and world No. 2 Phil Mickelson. But only one player at Old Blue rolls into today's opening round riding a five-tournament streak of top-10 form: England's Justin Rose.
"Obviously, I am in a rich vein of form right now," said the 26-year-old Rose, who sandwiched a runner-up finish in the European Tour's BMW PGA Championship between four top-10 results on the PGA Tour. "Because I've been struggling a bit with a back injury this season, my schedule has been a bit sporadic. As a consequence, I've noticed that when I do play, I'm extremely excited, my game is fresh, my mind is clear and consistent results have followed accordingly."
The happy brand of consistency wasn't always a Rose hallmark. Rose famously introduced himself to the golf world at the 1998 British Open, in which he holed a wedge on the 72nd hole to finish tied for fourth as a 17-year-old amateur. Perhaps deluded by his dream sequence at Birkdale, Rose immediately turned pro ... and proceeded to miss 21 consecutive cuts on the European Tour.
If inexperience defined his first two fruitless years as a professional, hardship piled on in 2000, when his father and mentor, Ken, was diagnosed with cancer. Emotionally derailed by the gradual decline and death of his best friend, Rose didn't notch his first pro victory until the 2002 Dunhill Championship. Five victories on three different international tours that season signaled a sea change and prompted his decision in 2003 to take his game to the PGA Tour, where he has steadily improved his status each season.
In spite of the balky back that has forced him to skip a slew of events, Rose has yet to miss a cut in eight starts this season. He has been in the weekend mix at both majors, finishing tied for fifth at the Masters and tied for 10th at last month's U.S. Open. He ranks fifth on the PGA Tour in scoring average (69.58). He has seen his world ranking rise to No. 18. And if this were a Ryder Cup year, he would be leading the European roll call.
Only one glaring item is missing from the Rose resume: a victory in the United States.
"There's no escaping the fact that I am still looking for a first win in the States," Rose said. "But I feel more comfortable than ever in contention. I feel like I'm developing into a four-round player. Whereas in the past I always seemed to drop my guard one day, this year I haven't backed down. When I've gotten into contention early, I've stayed on the leader board all week. While I try not to put a stigma on winning here as opposed to winning in Europe, I'm confident that a win in the States is coming, hopefully sooner rather than later."
Rose has precisely the game to fill in that last bio blank this week on 7,204-yard, par-70 Old Blue. Always known as one of the game's purest putters, Rose ranks fifth on the PGA Tour with the flatstick. And thanks to a move to a new shaft in his woods, he's finding more fairways than ever, finishing tied for first in that category at the Travelers Championship. Throw in the fact that Rose's game always has been better suited to tougher tracks, not the PGA's stock birdie buffets, and the Brit looks a perfect match for an event that is likely to behave quite a bit like a mini-major.
Woods is more than a little responsible for Congressional's quasi-Slam setup. No doubt, he's multitasking this week, meshing his duties as host with some early preparation for the 2011 U.S. Open.
Said Woods: "I'd say the fairways are one [mower] cut wider than they were in 1997. The rough is probably one inch less than it was in '97. And the greens aren't quite as firm or as quick."
Other than that slight softening and the absence of the sadists also known as the USGA, it's hard to see the difference between this week's debut event and a U.S. Open.
From its major-maven host to its serious setup, glittering field (featuring five of the world's top six players) and classic, beloved venue, everything about the AT&T National screams grand. Given such fertile seed and rich conditions, a rosy outcome is almost guaranteed.