How could it have been any other way? A US Open that reached out to the past was won by a player who hit his approach to the last standing a metre from the Hogan plaque. The ball almost hit the pin, so true was the strike. Perhaps the spirit of old Ben had one hand on the club of Justin Rose, the last man standing in an epic finale.
One by one the contenders buckled as Merion made the greatest players on earth scream for their mothers in the fight to be champion. This was more than a test of golf. This was an examination of mettle. And that was just the lot of those in the galleries, where some watched this incredible denouement through their fingers.
Luke Donald shipped five shots over four holes in his outward nine. Charl Schwartzel six in seven. The great Father’s Day hope, superdad Phil Mickelson, was three over for his round after five holes. But we have learned never to discount old Lefty. When he holed his chipped approach out of the rough on the shortest par four on the course, he leapfrogged Jason Day, Hunter Mahan and Rose at a stroke to assume the lead.
They say the tournament does not begin until the back nine on Sunday. If so this was some way to declare intent. Rose got the message, drilling his approach stone dead at the 12 for a tap-in birdie, and sinking another at the shot 13. This was golf as basketball, end to end drama. Rose was now five holes from his first major championship, the hardest closing sequence, perhaps, in major golf.
He would drop shots at 14 and 15 coming in but simply stunning tee shots at 17 and 18 when the pressure could not have been any greater opened the door to nirvana. Rose has enjoyed big days before, unforgettable moments in Ryder Cup wins, but nothing to top this.
Though Phil Mickelson had still to play the last in the final group, none had birdied the last across the whole weekend, so when Rose tapped in for par and blew a kiss to the sky in the direction of his late father, he knew his one over total had made him king this day.
Earlier Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy trailed a hefty pointer to what the day might hold with rounds of 74 and 76 respectively. McIlroy was so frustrated by the challenge he threw a club across the fairway on the fifth and bent his wedge beyond use in anger at twice hitting his ball in the creek at 11. And he was never in the running. Such was the rapid rate of retreat at the top of the leaderboard Jason Duffner and Ernie Els were genuine contenders in the hutch at five over par after sub 70 rounds.
As the leaders were heading out to meet their fate, Woods was left to explain his worst performance at a US Open. The world no.1 has failed to break 70 over the weekend at his last 11 major championships. For some that is evidence enough. The debate yesterday morning had already shifted from matching Jack’s mark of 18 majors to whether he might ever add to the 14 he holds.
This is the price of being Tiger Woods and pretty much replicated the dialogue that swirled around his post-scandal low point in the early days of his association with coach Sean Foley. The missed cut at the 2011 PGA Championship, his third at a major as a pro, marked the end of history as far as Woods watchers were concerned. He was back in the ranks, no longer special, vulnerable to the same shortcomings as A.N. Other.
And lo, he popped a win at Bay Hill six months later, the first of three last year. And lo, that became three victories before the Masters this year, at which point the narrative embraced the idea that Jack’s record might be swallowed up by August. Funny old game, eh? A more balanced view, based on the evidence, might be that Woods is unlikely to be the dominant force he was at his mid-twenties peak. But that does not mean he can’t win another major.
Woods was principally undone here by his failure on the greens, a feature carried over from his previous event, the Memorial Tournament in Ohio, where high winds and superfast putting surfaces knocked him completely out of kilter. It won’t always be like that. “I didn’t play very well. My game was a bit off and I struggled with the pace of the greens all week,” Woods said. “This place is tough, and the pin positions were really hard to get to, probably because they were worried about the greens being so soft.”
After his third-round 76 the cameras panned to Woods’ current beau, Lyndsey Vonn. Amazingly, given the need to release a minute by minute bulletin on the state of Woods’ game, there was no attempt by broadcasters to link his nosedive with the blonde distraction provided by the poster girl of American skiing. Well, she does know a thing or two about going downhill. Downhill, get it?
They were back on message yesterday, beginning championship Sunday with a horror compilation of missed putts and fluffed chips against a soundtrack that went something like ‘he would never have done that ten years ago’. Perhaps we weren’t looking hard enough. He birdied the first yesterday, had an eagle putt from 90 feet on the fourth, lagged it to four feet and missed the birdie.
Anything remotely off line here risks doom. You are either on the fairway or you are not. There is nothing in between mowed grass and mayhem at Merion, save for an 18-inch ribbon of first cut, and that is bad enough. This tends to shorten the ability spectrum. Same for all parties goes up the cry, which is true, but Woods is essentially disarmed in these conditions.
There was, perhaps, a lesson for all in the performance of Shawn Steffani. He started his final round 20 over par following an 85 on Saturday. He closed yesterday on 19 under, his 69 embellished by a hole-in-one at the mighty 17, the only one all week. There is no cash reward for chasing an ace at a major. Or is there? “The USGA will probably want that ball,”Steffani said. “Everything has its price.”