ARDMORE — A steady hand gave Justin Rose the shiny U.S. Open Trophy. A wild ride gave Phil Mickelson yet another silver medal.
Rose captured his first major championship on Sunday with remarkable calm and three pure shots on the punishing closing holes at Merion. A par on the 18th hole gave him an even-par 70, and that was good enough to become the first Englishman in 43 years to win America’s national championship.
Rose hit 5-iron to the first cut of rough, pin-high on the 17th for an easy par. He smashed the most important tee shot of his career down the middle on the final hole, about 15 feet short of the famous Ben Hogan plaque. And his 4-iron rolled near the pin and settled against the collar of the green.
“When I came over the hill and saw my ball laying in the fairway, I thought, ‘This is my moment.’ It was me hitting from the middle of the fairway,” Rose said.
As usual, someone’s big moment in the U.S. Open came at Mickelson’s expense.
Rose was in the scoring area a half-mile from the grandstands behind the 18th green where the fans began to chant, “Let’s go Phil!” as Mickelson paced off a last-ditch effort to force a playoff. It was a long shot — the 18th hole didn’t yield a single birdie all weekend. From about 40 yards away, Mickelson’s chip for birdie raced by the cup, securing Rose’s victory.
Mickelson, already in the U.S. Open record book with five second-place finishes, added another that will hurt as much any of them.
Sunday was his 43rd birthday. It was the first time he was equipped with the outright lead going into the last day. His week began with a cross-country trip home to San Diego to watch his oldest daughter graduate from the eighth grade, returning just three hours before his tee time on Thursday. This was the same daughter born the day after his first runner-up finish in 1999.
All the stars were aligned. None of the putts fell in.
Mickelson surged back into the lead by holing out from 75 yards in thick rough on the 10th hole for eagle, another moment that made it seem like surely was his time. The cheer could be heard across the road, through the trees, loud enough that Rose knew exactly what had happened.
But on the easiest hole at Merion, Mickelson drilled a wedge over the green on the par-3 13th and made bogey.
What hurt Mickelson even more was a wedge from about 121 yards on the 15th hole. It should have given him a good look at birdie, but it came up so short that Mickelson’s best chance was to use one of his five wedges to chip from the front of the green. He hit that one too far, 25 feet by the hole, and the bogey wound up costing him a chance at the major he covets.
Mickelson wound up with a bogey on the 18th for a 74 and tied for second with Jason Day, who closed with a 71.
“Heartbreak,” Mickelson said. “This is tough to swallow after coming so close. This was my best chance of all of them. I had a golf course I really liked. I felt this was as good an opportunity as you could ask for. It really hurts.”
Day appeared to salvage his round by chipping in for bogey on the 11th hole, and he was still in the picture when he made a 12-foot par putt on the 17th to stay one shot behind. But he put his approach into the bunker left of the 18th green, blasted out to about 7 feet and missed the putt.
The back nine was a four-way battle that included Hunter Mahan, who played in the last group with Mickelson. He was one shot out of the lead until he three-putted the 15th hole for a double bogey, and then closed with back-to-back bogeys when his hopes were gone. Mahan had a 75 and tied for fourth with Billy Horschel (74), Ernie Els (69) and Jason Dufner, who had a 67 despite making triple bogey on the 15th hole.
Rose finished at 1-over 281, eight shots higher than David Graham’s winning score in 1981 when the U.S. Open was last held at Merion. The shortest course for a major championship in nearly a decade held up just fine. It was the third time in the last four years that no one broke par in the toughest test of golf.
The last Englishman to win the U.S. Open was Tony Jacklin at Hazeltine in 1970, though Rose added to recent dominance of the Union Jack at the U.S. Open as the third winner in four years. The others were Graeme McDowell (2010) and Rory McIlroy (2011) of Northern Ireland.
Walking off the 18th green, he looked through the patchy clouds and point to the sky, a nod to his late father, Ken, who died of leukemia in September 2002.
“I couldn’t help but look up at the heavens and think my old man Ken had something to do with it,” Rose said.
It seems like more than 15 years ago when Rose first starred on the major scene as a 17-year-old amateur who chipped in on the final hole at Royal Birkdale in the 1998 British Open and tied for fourth. He turned pro the next week, and then missed the cut in his first 21 tournaments. But he stayed the course and slowly picked off big tournaments — including the AT&T National in 2010 just down the road at Aronimink.
The U.S. Open takes him to another level and moves him to No. 3 in the world.
“Just for the last few years has been known as one of the best ball-strikers in the game. He showed that today,” said Luke Donald, who played alongside him. “To win a U.S. Open, you have to have the ultimate control of your golf ball. He did that. He hit some really clutch iron shots down the stretch.”
Tiger Woods turned out to be nothing more than an afterthought. He hit out-of-bounds on his second hole and made triple bogey, and closed with a 74 to finish at 13-over 293, his worst score as a pro in the U.S. Open, and matching his worst score in any major.
The score wasn’t nearly that bad considering the golf course, with its tricky contours on the greens and punishing rough.
Mickelson wore all black when he arrived for the final round, and in a brief TV interview he said, “The best for me is to play well and have fun.”
Sunday at the U.S. Open is rarely fun.
Just ask Donald, who was only two shots behind starting the final round. It all crumbled when he pulled his tee shot on the par-3 third hole — so long and hard that Donald hit a driver — and struck a standard-bearer. She was on the ground for several minutes, and Donald appeared visibly shook. He made bogey, and then followed that with two bogeys and a double bogey. He shot 42 on the back nine.
Steve Stricker took his lumps on one hole, and it was ugly. One shot behind, he pushed his tee shot on the par-5 second hole out-of-bounds. After hitting the next tee shot into the fairway, he tried to lay up with a 4-iron and hit a shank out-of-bounds. Stricker had to make a 7-foot putt to escape with a triple-bogey 8.
Former Masters champion Charl Schwartzel, trying to give South Africa a major for the fourth straight year, opened with a birdie and a tie for the lead. That became a distant memory, however, when he dropped seven shots over the seven holes and closed out his front nine with a 42.
Horschel wore pants with octopus prints, and he putted like he had eight arms. Out in 39, he opened the back nine with a pair of three-putts.
For a short time, it looked as though Mickelson might join this parade of pretenders when he three-putted for double bogey twice in three holes on the front nine. And then came his shot out of the rough on the 10th, and he was on his way — but not for long.
Rose made his share of mistakes, too, like the three-putt bogey on the 11th and a horrible shot out of the bunker on the 14th. The difference was his approach into the 12th to 3 feet, followed by a 20-foot birdie putt on the 13th hole.
With Mickelson watching so many putts graze the lip, that cushion was all that Rose needed.