Defending champ feeling positive about Pinehurst

Jun. 10, 2014 @ 07:45 PM

It’s rare an athlete, especially in an individual sport as golf is, admits to having the major victory or big championship monkey on his back. The same is mostly true when he or she gets the first major breakthrough.

Justin Rose readily says it feels good, relieving and therefore energizing to have his first major championship — the 2013 U.S. Open last June at Merion Golf Club.

“I thoroughly enjoyed being the U.S. Open champion and I think also, though, having had a whole year now I’m also ready for the challenge ahead and certainly ready for this week,” Rose said Tuesday at Pinehurst No. 2, a couple days before looking to defend his title.

“Defending” a title is not a commonly-used sporting phrase Rose likes.

“I don’t even like that word, defending, because it puts you in already behind the eight ball. You don’t want to be out there being defensive at all,” he said.

Since winning his first major, Rose says he’s playing looser, with less pressure — which he believes can lead to the best golf of his career.

“The last few years of my career have been definitely on an upward trend and winning bigger and bigger tournaments, culminating in winning a major,” Rose said.

“I really want to treat this major that I’ve won now as a gift and give me the ability to now sort of free-wheel for the rest of my career, play free, play loose, just go after it. I got really no pressure on me from that perspective anymore,” he said.

Rose likened Pinehurst’s Donald Ross-designed masterpiece to golf he’s more familiar with on the other side of the pond. It’s another reason he’s confident in his ability to repeat as champion. He was the first English player to win a major since Nick Faldo in 1996 and a U.S. Open in 43 years — since Tony Jacklin in 1970. Or if that doesn’t play out for Rose this weekend, perhaps another English player could make it back to back.

Rose is paired with Phil Mickelson and 2013 U.S. Amateur champion, and 19-year-old fellow countryman Matthew Fitzpatrick.

“I’m also looking forward to playing with Matt Fitzpatrick, played 18 holes with him at Augusta this year and he’s a really nice guy and hopefully he’ll do well,” Rose said. “This is the kind of golf course ... he grew up on, ball running, he’s got a great short game, too, so hopefully it will be a great group to be a part of.”

Rose has some local Pinehurst ties as well, even creating one more recently in preparation for this week.

Rose’s putting coach, David Orr, lived near Pinehurst.

“Yeah, he loves Pinehurst,” Rose said.

Improved putting helped him turn the corner a couple years ago, Rose said.

In an earlier scouting visit to Pinehurst, Rose had a round with longtime Pinehurst caddie Willie McRae helping him out.

“I think (he’s caddied) here 71 years. It’s just amazing,” Rose said.

McRae helped with reading putts, playing from all angles around the greens, where a player truly wants to hit approach shots and more knowledge that becomes second-nature only after decades.

“Willie as just great fun to have out there. I think he was part of the Pinehurst experience for me,” Rose said.

Rose, even before holding the trophy, appreciated the history of Merion last June, specifically citing Ben Hogan’s legendary, and famously-photographed, one iron from the 18th fairway on the 72nd hole of the 1950 U.S. Open.

Rose says he feels and likes the same sense of tradition at Pinehurst.

“I didn’t have too much of a concept of the North and South Amateur. I didn’t realize how big a tournament that was and you look at Walter Hagen and Byron Nelson and all the guys who have played here and won here,” he said.

“That’s obviously why these big championships are played here, because of the likes of the players before us,” he said. “The big tournaments that they have held here and they have stood up to the test of time.”