Justin Rose: On preparing for and playing in the Open Championship

Fresh off his win in the Scottish Open, Justin Rose sat down Tuesday for some questions in the media center at Royal Liverpool. What was interesting about what he had to say was that it all seemed to be expansive answers to a variety of questions about preparing for the Open and just as many about the mindset for playing links golf and some good stuff about his maturation as a player.

He began by talking about how the win in Scotland on a links course bolstered his confidence for this week’s Open:

“Yes, absolutely. I couldn’t really have hoped for any better than that, obviously. And it’s been exciting. I feel that winning is something that’s hard to do, obviously, out on Tour. You always talk about it being a habit and getting in contention; the more you do it, sometimes the easier it becomes to deal with the emotions that come with that. So if everything goes to plan this week and I find myself in contention again, then the policies of last week will be huge for me, yeah.”

And he didn’t particularly think that winning last week would take the bloom off the rose — amazing I was able to work that in so early in the post — this week: 

“I think had I not won in Aberdeen, I think this week would be a realistic opportunity, and I don’t feel it any less realistic because I won last week. I think the odds go more in my favor just through confidence and the experience of having done that the last couple of weeks.”

“Winning a Major championship is never easy, no matter what circumstances are. So for me the goal is to trust my game, to get a good game plan going, to not get ahead of myself, to get on the first tee Thursday fresh and ready to play. If I commit to all the things I know I have to do, all my skills, let them all come out this week, then I’m going to give myself an opportunity.”

And being a British lad, while his U.S. Open victory, his first major, was a huge step in his career, the Open is the one he always dreamed about:

“This is the one that I holed the putt as a junior to win on the putting green through years of practice. Thousands of time I’ve won The Open Championship in my mind. This is probably the one I’ve dreamed about the most. So of course it would just be — I think when you’re chasing Major championships, any of them will do. But if you’re lucky enough to win this one, I think it would be incredibly special.”

One of the things you have to do in links golf is play to avoid the very penal fairway bunkers. So rather than hit a soaring drive up in the winds, many players choose to hit a shorter long iron on a lower trajectory that gallops accurately down the firm fairways. It began with a question about his 2-iron and the detail is quite interesting because it points to the fluidity and detail that goes into the composition of a player’s allotted 14 clubs:

“I’ve been toying with the TaylorMade guys, I’ve been working hard the last few weeks on a couple of areas in my golf bag. TaylorMade have a new UDI club, it’s a like a hybrid but more like an iron. There’s a 1, 2 and 3-iron version of that. I used the 3-iron in Washington, I used the 2-iron last week, and this week I actually might use the 1-iron version.”

“So I’ve been bouncing around with the top end of the bag. And I’ve also been adjusting my wedges. By adding a club in the top range, I’ve had to get rid of a wedge. So I’ve been adjusting the bounces [the angle of the flange on the bottom of the club] and the loft in my wedges to accommodate. That’s the goal for me the next few days is to figure out this golf course, trying to understand if the wind blows from both directions what club is going to be important to me, and go from there. But, yeah, so basically long irons and wedges is what I’m working on the next couple of days.”

But wait a minute! Given that the wedges are the most accurate clubs in the bag and are all about feel, how confident can you be with clubs that have all been jiggered for one event?

“Yeah, I think the important thing is, that’s why playing last week was important, because you want to know — it’s all very well to hit it perfectly, but you need to understand with your club, what your miss is or what the tendency is for it, if it doesn’t go to plan. I think you only really know that once you get a scorecard in your hand”

“So I know what happened last week. I had to tweak what I felt wasn’t perfect last week. With my wedges, to be honest, I don’t know exactly how far they do fly to the yard, which I would normally know. In links golf that’s not as important, because the elements are so drastically different and the bounce [of the ball] is so unpredictable and the calculations that you’re making, it’s not an exact science playing links golf. So therefore, on the wedges side I’m a little bit more relaxed in terms of playing different lofts. It’s more of the bounce that’s more important to me.”

Rose won the 2013 U.S. Open at Merion in steadfast fashion coming down the stretch with Phil Mickelson in hot pursuit. Rose won by two over Phil and the irrepressible Jason Day who always seems to just float to the top of any major leaderboard. So no fluke that they were just right there and yet, Rose managed to calmly play his way through the storm. He tells us how he managed:

“Yeah, well, I think I get out of the results and more into the process and really focus on playing the golf course and understanding that it’s me against the golf course more than anything. And I just get into the zone, really.”

“I think that’s the important thing for me this week, is not to let expectation or let anything like that get in my way. It’s basically building a game plan and going out and committing to it. And I think that four rounds is a lot of time to play your way into a golf tournament. And that’s what I’ve realized the last couple of wins is that you don’t have to be perfect day one or two, you’ve just got to keep — just basically keep things very solid early on. And just let the rounds and let the week develop.”

“I think that’s what happened at Merion. I really sort of grew into the week and felt like I got better every day. And last week I did the same thing, I got better every day. And that’s the goal this week, too. But basically when I get out of result and just start to really play the golf course.”

As a U.S. Open Champion and with his back-to-back wins at Tiger’s, Quicken Loans National at Congressional, and then in Scotland against a strong field, is he playing the best golf of his life? Rose provides a very nuanced answer that is just rich with his increasing self-awareness, understanding and experience:

“Yeah, for sure. I think it’s always easy after two wins to get carried away and say you’re playing the best golf of your life. I’m definitely more experienced. Each week I’m more experienced. And I think that begins to swing the pendulum in your favor. And experience plays a huge part in being able to capitalize upon your best golf.”

“In 2010 I was probably playing just as well as I was now. But four or five years on, probably a little bit more equipped to deal with the big situation, and I have a lot more positives now under my belt, Ryder Cups and Major championships. And I’ve been at the top end of the game now for a couple of years, I suppose. So that brings a lot of confidence.”

So coming up on his 34th birthday at the end of this month, does he feel like these are the prime years of his career?

“Yeah, very much so. I think I’m in the middle of it. I said actually when I was 30, so 2010, that was in my mind, the next ten years from that point were going to be my prime. That was going to be when I was either going to live up to whatever, Birkdale back in the day [his stunning 1998 Open performance as an amateur], or I wasn’t. So it was the time for me to do.”

“Before then I kept chalking things down for experience and learning. There comes a point when you’ve got to stop learning and start doing. Absolutely. Now through the next six or seven years is absolutely important to me.”

“I feel like at the same point, there’s a lot of time left. You hear Phil Mickelson talking about the next five years and how excited he is about that. It just shows you the opportunity this game gives you. You stay fit, you stay healthy. There’s a long time and many, many opportunities left for me to win many Majors.”

Funny, you’d think that a guy who grew up in England playing links golf would pretty much have that down. But his game has evolved as a solution to the 51 weeks of golf in the U.S. where you play in the air with darts into the greens. His trip to Scotland was remedial:

“Yeah, my Open record is not particularly good if you look at it on paper. That would suggest that there definitely needs to be a change of mindset. That happened for me last week, I played the Scottish Open to get more familiar with links golf. I’ve come into this tournament the last few years playing links golf, but doing it by myself [away from the tournament venue], trying to find different venues to get the feel of it. But I really felt like it was important to get the scorecard in my hand last week, and do it under somewhat meaningful conditions.”

“I don’t think you ever lose it, you just kind of have to go and remember and just sort of get a few more rounds in, get your eye in. Because a lot of it is just getting the feel for the wind and how much curve spin you have to put to hold it up into a certain amount of wind, and when that’s not the right thing to do. Basically when you have to go against the wind and when you have to play with the wind, there comes a point when the wind is too strong and you can’t fight it. Just getting a feel for that again.”

“Yeah, I mean, I’ve got my eye on improving in this championship. But at the same time I don’t feel like my Open record is as bad as the black and white suggests. I’ve had a couple good opportunities, I felt like I played very well at Turnberry a few years ago. Had I putted better, I think I would have gone close there. Muirfield back in 2002, I was very young, but I was in the second or third last group on Sunday. Had I been a little more wise and older, and a bit more experience under my belt, I think I’d have done a lot better job there. So I’ve created a couple of opportunities, but haven’t been able to put it all together. I hope now going back to your point, being more experienced that will be the case.”

Not only more experienced, but more experienced at winning majors even if the one at Merion is his only one. Winning majors is the almost universally the hardest thing to do in golf. You either have to be so young and inexperienced that you are unconscious, or so mature and battle-hardened that you are highly conscious:

“Definitely. If I had been coming come off a couple of wins and not won a Major championship, I would be thinking, is this my opportunity to get it done? Obviously I’d like to win No. 2 this week and that’s the goal. But it takes that little bit of pressure off of me, the fact that it’s been done. I have one under my belt. That monkey is off of my back. I don’t have to face those questions. I can just go ahead.”

“And I understand how I did win that Major championship. And I now have a model that works and I just need to replicate that, or at least have the confidence in which to draw upon and I know what worked for me so well in the past. Having won at Merion is a big help in this situation.”

And finally, Rose is now so experienced that he knows himself and his game well. More to the point, he understands his strengths and weaknesses:

“Yeah, I think so. I think I know what my skills are, I know what I’m good at. I know how to play to my strengths, I suppose. In the past I was maybe less experienced and maybe not quite as good. I was always trying to improve a part of my game to fit the golf course, where now I just build my strategy around what I’m good at. I don’t force things maybe as much as I once did. That was the key.”

“And obviously that’s what worked so well for me at Merion. I really think that I understood the golf course maybe better than anybody that week and how to play. And I didn’t get wrapped up in all the speculation about how records might fall and how the rain was going to keep it soft. And everyone was going to tear the course up. I played the course to shoot level par, because it’s a U.S. Open. And that’s the way it turned out.”

“My goal now the next couple of days is to formulate a good game plan and understand the strategy of this golf course. And similar to last week, I began on the Wednesday. I really struggled around Aberdeen, but as the week went on I really figured the golf course out. Just began to understand the strategy of it, hence why I hit so many — obviously given a couple-shot lead, too, it made it this way, but playing the course defensively, for me, coming in was the way to do it.”

He played nothing but mid-irons off the tees on the last six holes.

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