There are worse things to be known for, but Justin Rose wants more from the Masters than to be remembered as the epitome of sportsmanship in the hour of Sergio García’s coronation.
The grace displayed by Rose as García won a major championship at the 74th attempt was consistent with everything we know about him. The 2016 Olympic champion, who returned to Heathrow from Rio wearing his Team GB blazer, has fought his way into golf’s elite without betraying his character. In a congratulatory tweet to García on Sunday night, Rose wrote: “Incredible battle out there. Sport in the moment can be tough. But it's just sport. Hope you guys enjoyed it.”
That message hit home around the world of sport after a contest of epic intensity, in which Rose controlled the fight until his bogey at the 17th, missed birdie chance on 18 and drive into the trees at the first and only play-off hole, which turned the momentum García’s way.
— Justin Rose (@JustinRose99) April 10, 2017
But behind the great story of García’s persistence (even after a missed five-foot putt to win the title at the 18th in regulation) was a brutal near-miss for Rose, who endured his own long wait for a first major title - the 2013 US Open at Merion, where he became the first English champion since Tony Jacklin in 1970, and the first to win any major since Nick Faldo at the Masters in 1996.
“It's going to sting for sure,” Rose admitted, when the ceremonial part was over. “But you know, I really feel like this is a tournament I can still go on to win. I'd like to win three or four green jackets, but one would be enough. I just want to win here.”
Olympic and US Open titles are an indelible mark of Rose’s quality. Even now, his exploits prompt a nostalgic return to that day in 1998 when he chipped in from the rough at the 18th at the Open to finish tied for fourth, wearing what looked like teenage weekend gear. In the 19 years since, he has progressed to become a habitual major title contender and Ryder Cup giant, alongside the friend who beat him to the green jacket in Augusta on Sunday night.
With his career history of amateur dramatics, followed by 21 missed cuts as a pro, followed by recovery and rise from 2001 onwards, Rose is better equipped than most to contextualise his slim defeat to Garcia. And his good showing this time was no isolated event. In 2015 he posted the joint-highest non-winning score – at 14-under par – behind Jordan Spieth. He has now played in the Masters 12 times. García needed a record 19 goes to win it.
“I felt pretty much in control of my game and the tournament for the most part all day, and Sergio did what he had to do to make a run, and then I came back at him,” Rose said. “And the last hole or two - it is what it is.
“I would say this one probably is one that slipped by, for sure. I can't pick holes in my performance. I felt fantastic out there. I felt cool, calm and collected. Could I have made the putt on 17? Of course I could. But for the most part I'm not going to sit here and second guess one or two shots. I really stepped up. I felt great. I felt in control. I felt positive. I felt confident.
“Barring a great comeback from Sergio, it was mine to cruise to the house. But it's not always that easy. I always said, before I won at Merion, you're going to win majors and you're going to lose majors, but you've got to be willing to lose them. You've got to put yourself out there. You've got to hit the top of the leaderboard. There's a lot of pressure out there and if you're not willing to enjoy it, then you're not ready to win these tournaments. I loved it out there.”
These thoughts were delivered in the aftermath of a spectacle that was aesthetically gorgeous (the evening sun, the tense galleries) but also especially hard on the loser, who may feel slightly less sanguine as the week wears on.
He remembers the turning point as the 13th, where García needed a drop but recovered for par and then went birdie-eagle. Rose says: “Sergio holed from eight-feet for par, and I had about five, six-feet for birdie. That little two‑shot swing there was kind of when he was back in the tournament. I feel - if he misses at that point, I'm four clear and I've got my eye on Thomas Pieters and Matt Kuchar instead.”
In the emotion of García’s winning putt, Rose rubbed his eyes; and of course we in the press wanted to know whether he was clearing tears away, or sweat. His answer was surprisingly emphatic: “Sweat, sweat, sweat.” He may be a charming individual and a good loser but he was no broken man. You can be proud as well as gracious.