- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 17, 2002

GULLANE, Scotland England's Rose finally has blossomed.

It's been four years since 17-year-old Justin Rose exploded onto golf's grandest stage with a fourth-place finish in the British Open as an amateur at Birkdale. Insiders scoffed when Rose turned pro immediately after that Open. And those snickers seemed justified when the Hampshire, England, resident dropped off the European Tour in 1999, missing 12 consecutive cuts at one point and concluding the season ranked 197th in the Order of Merit.

But after two years of steady improvement under swing guru David Leadbetter, Rose finally fulfilled Birkdale's raw promise this season, collecting four victories worldwide and his first two European Tour triumphs. And tomorrow at Muirfield, Rose returns to the limelight, paired with world No.1 Tiger Woods for the first two rounds and carrying the standard as England's top player in the 131st British Open.

"I suppose it hasn't sunk in yet that it's the world No.1, and I'm on the world stage with him," said Rose, who has never experienced the circus that comes with a major pairing with Woods. "You can't get much better than playing alongside Woods at a major championship. It proves again to me how far I've come. It's a huge compliment. I've had a good year, and I think basically it is a reward for that."

Few other players would consider a pairing with Woods a reward. Just ask Padraig Harrington or Sergio Garcia, both of whom fell apart under the duress of weekend jaunts with Woods at last month's U.S. Open.

"It's a bit wild for sure," Harrington said of a tee time with Tiger. "It will definitely be a great experience for Justin."

Unlike Harrington and Garcia at Bethpage, however, Rose could draw as many roars at Muirfield as Woods. Despite Rose's South African roots, British golf fans are quick to claim Rose as their own. Not only did he spend most of his formative years in Hampshire, his performance at Birkdale earned him honorary native status. Throw in his swashbuckling style and fondness for fan interaction, and Rose might be just the man to galvanize the galleries and shake up the heretofore unflappable Woods.

"I love it when they get crazy," Rose said. "I'd like to see golf get a little sexier. The image is still pretty staid, pretty boring. Every time I go out there, I try to do my part to spice things up. I mean it's supposed to be fun, right?"

Woods has been known to pound such exuberance into the pulp of submission see Sergio. But add Rose to the ever-lengthening list of charismatic candidates for the role of Tiger's rival.

"It wouldn't surprise me in the least to see that eventually develop," said Leadbetter, who is obviously biased but has certainly sculpted his share of talents most notably Nick Faldo. "Justin would be a great foil for Tiger, and he has the game. Technically, he's far, far ahead of where [Faldo] was at his age."

Rose's only technical weakness used to be his hand-dominated action with the driver. A fabulous feel player, second only to Jose Maria Olazabal in the European Tour's combined stat for putting and wedge play, Rose always has struggled somewhat with a wristy full swing. But courtesy of Leadbetter, the master of the mechanical swing, Rose has improved his driving accuracy drastically this season. With rough that would shame a Malaysian jungle at Muirfield, finding the fairways will be absolutely critical to his success this week.

"Staying in the short stuff is the primary goal this week," said Rose, who is ninth in the Order of Merit this season (approximately $800,000) and boasts a No.41 world ranking thanks to his victories in the Alfred Dunhill Championship in January and British Masters in June. "You're in attack mode once you get to the fairway."

These days, it's refreshing to hear anyone in the game other than Tiger talking about attacking. Perhaps it's going to take a free-spirited player too young to appreciate the gravity of the circumstances to put the first dent in Tiger's armor of invincibility.

"I'm sure I'll be nervous on Thursday but more excited than anything," Rose said. "Can I win the Open? Well, I've already done OK in one, and I'm a hugely improved golfer since then, so why not?"


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