- The Washington Times - Monday, June 13, 2011

Imagine if four days defined your life. Every accomplishment, every failure, every moment would be measured against them. And nothing could top those four days, no matter how hard you tried.

When Justin Rose was 17 years old, he sank a birdie on the 72nd and final hole of the British Open. That ended his four days at Royal Birkdale Golf Club in Southport, England, with a fourth-place finish, the best by an amateur since 1953. Ninety-six hours transformed him into a sensation, for England and golf.

“His finest hour,” Alan Shipnuck wrote in Sports Illustrated after the 1998 tournament, “will always be his magical week at Royal Birkdale.”

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Caught in the wave of adulation, Rose turned professional. He then missed 21 consecutive cuts and didn’t record his first professional win until 2002.

Rose, born in South Africa and raised in England, spent much of the ensuing 13 years trying to live up those four days at Royal Birkdale. Such is the power of one of golf’s majors, like the U.S. Open this week at Congressional Country Club, to shape a life and career.

“Those tragic moments as a kid,” said Sean Foley, Rose’s swing coach, “get stored in you.”

Foley and Rose connected during the U.S. Open at Bethpage Black in 2009. Waiting for a turn on the practice range, Rose noticed Foley working with Sean O’Hair, the No. 15-ranked player in the world that year. Most everything O’Hair did was the opposite of what Rose had been taught.

In Bethpage’s dining room, Rose and Foley started their partnership. Last season, Rose recorded his first two victories on the PGA Tour, to accompany four top spots on the European Tour.

Today, Rose is more comfortable with himself. He’s analytical. He’s blunt. He’s a relentless critic of his game. He likes tricky courses, ones that force him to think and take chances with each shot. The natural gifts that carried him at 17 remain, but his perspective on golf has broadened. He’s developed an identity that extends beyond those four days.

“I’ve seen a massive change in his emotional attachment to playing golf and his understanding of himself,” Foley said. “When you’re 17, not too many 17-year-olds are doing things for themselves. They’re doing it for parents, agents, managers, girlfriends, whoever. There are not too many kids who are uniquely themselves. That was the case.”

Rose looks at his career as a trend line. At least he tries to. There was the initial dip, then a spurt of wins, then the plunge out of the world’s top 100, followed by the resurgence of recent years. Sure, standings are important. But where does the trajectory point? That’s the key.

Despite not landing in the winner’s circle this season, Rose focuses on other signs of improvement. Results don’t matter as much as progress. But you can hear Royal Birkdale ripple through each comment.

“Last year, I was just focusing on the right things and all of sudden my run of form came,” Rose said. “At any point, you can turn an average year into a good year. … I’m trying to see the big picture, really.”

Foley and a psychological coach, Dr. Gio Valiante, work through that with Rose. Foley, whose other clients include Tiger Woods, saw a kid who started playing golf for the enjoyment, who wanted to be great.

“What happened,” Foley said, “quickly shifted to be so much more about the result.

“At 17, rather than understanding the gravity of the situation, they would internally just think there’s something wrong with them.”

Not winning this season disappoints Rose, of course. Putting is a big part of the problem. Confidence is the thing, as thoughts swirl through Rose’s head when he stands over the ball. You change putters and technique and setup, searching for comfort on the green. Deep down, Rose believes he is a good putter.

But the closer one gets to a goal, Foley believes, the more self-induced pressure follows.

The same could be said for majors. Win one, and you’re remembered forever. Or finish fourth, like Rose, and your career could never be the same.