AUGUSTA, Ga. – Justin Rose sat in the twilight watching the celebration, a forced smile spread across his face and a freight train of emotions running through his body.
He’d just lost a thrilling duel to Sergio Garcia on the first extra hole at the 2017 Masters. It hurt. But he also understood the moment.
It’s the way of sports and particularly when the sport is played on what is widely considered hallowed grounds in golf circles, now was not the time for self-examination or wallowing, there would be plenty of that down the road.
It was a celebration and Rose was going to respect that.
“I hit a lot of great shots. I didn’t feel like it was a tournament that anybody lost, really,” Rose recalled on Monday. “It was great to be a part of a Sunday exciting back nine with birdies and eagles. It was just one of those situations where one guy was going to lose.”
Every loss stings, particularly when you’ve spent the days since you first picked up a golf club dreaming of slipping that coveted green jacket over your shoulders. For those that know the Englishman, his decision to applaud Garcia’s victory, and not lament his own loss, was no surprise.
Part of that reaction can be attributed to Rose’s demeanor. He’s intense, meticulous and wildly competitive, but he also understands what it means to be a Masters champion.
That he’s also pieced together a resume at Augusta National that is unrivaled over the last decade may have also softened the sting of that loss, however temporarily.
Rose is a perfect 12-for-12 in cuts made in his Masters career – which is currently the longest active cuts-made streak – has finished runner-up twice in the last three years and completed his week at the year’s first major outside the top 25 just twice.
“He’s a great ball-striker and he’s extremely inspired that week. It’s all a culmination of how good physically he is feeling that week and his absolute love for the place. Love is pretty freeing,” said Sean Foley, Rose’s long-time swing coach. “He drives down Magnolia Lane and he’s just in love with it.”
Rose’s bond with Augusta National is evident. He’s smiling from tee to green and walking with a relaxed demeanor that often isn’t the case at other major championships, but then even requited love only partially explains his track record around the hills and through the pines.
If Augusta National is, as the lore goes, a second-shot golf course, Rose is uniquely equipped to handle the challenge. Widely considered one of the game’s best ball-strikers, Rose has hit 160 of 216 greens in regulation during the last three Masters, that’s 20 more greens than the next best threesome combined over that span. He also has the most eagles (109), the lowest par-4 scoring average (4.02) and the highest GIR percentage (71.7 percent) in the last five Masters.
“Where’s my jacket?” Rose smiled on Monday when told about his statistical dominance around the old fruit nursery.
But if Rose seems at ease with his plight now, that wasn’t the case in the days following last year’s loss to Garcia. It would be only human for his mind to race back to that Sunday and the moment he stood in the 13th fairway with the green jacket seemingly just a 6-iron away.
Garcia had pulled his drive left into the trees, and Rose, who was leading the Spaniard by two shots, was perfectly positioned in the fairway. It would be only natural to allow yourself to consider the possibilities.
Rose’s 6-iron sailed long and he was unable to get up and down for birdie, while Garcia – who would name his newborn daughter Azalea, which is what they call No. 13 at Augusta National – would find his wayward tee shot amid the flora and fauna and scramble for par.
The rest is Masters lore.
Garcia eagled the 15th hole to move to 9 under and Rose would bogey No. 17 to set up a tie and eventual playoff.
“The two weeks after [the Masters] I didn’t really want to play golf,” Rose said. “I kind of was licking my wounds a little bit. It took me a month to kind of find that motivation again.”
But slowly, the analytical side of Rose – that part of his personality that makes him something of a Renaissance man who in another life could just have easily been a world-class engineer or scientist – reasserted itself. It’s the same methodical approach he’s applied to hone a motion that is, by definition, violent and unpredictable.
Since the 2017 PGA Championship, Rose has three victories, eight top-5 finishes and a 68.52 scoring average, so it’s not a surprise he begins this week among a long list of potential favorites. Or, as he explained, he has “high confidence, but low expectations,” which is exactly what one would expect from an analytical, Type A player like Rose.
But what makes Rose such a formidable contender at the Masters is his ability to transition from mechanic to artist so effortlessly.
“He can go from [Albert] Einstein to [Pablo] Picasso pretty quick,” Foley said.
Superior ball-striking may be Rose’s calling card, but it’s his putting, which has been something of his Achilles Heel for much of his career, and short game that have also fueled his performances at Augusta National.
Last year he ranked fourth in the field in putts per GIR and in 2015, when he finished runner-up to Jordan Spieth, he was 17th for the week in total putts.
“The last couple of years now I would say that I’ve simplified my putting a lot,” Rose said. “That can only help when you’re playing under pressure, is to have less thoughts going on in your mind or on the greens.”
But it’s thoughts of another kind, of those final frenzied moments at last year’s edition, that he now must contend with. Losing last year’s Masters hurt, but it also provided Rose another valuable experience at a place he affectionately calls his “happy hunting ground.”