It must be something to be rueful about missing an eight-foot putt among seven birdies in a record-breaking performance in the Ryder Cup, but that was Justin Rose’s hard-headed assessment when he looked back on probably the finest round of his entire career.
“I can’t believe I missed,” he said of his slightly wayward putt on the seventh as he and Henrik Stenson were trying to claw back a two-hole deficit against Bubba Watson and Matt Kuchar in the morning fourball. In retrospect, it was a fair call, given how well Rose putted in the rest of the match, going on to compile a 10-birdie finish with Stenson for a 3&2 victory.
From the moment he announced his arrival in the game as an amateur teenager by holing from the rough on the 18th to tie for fourth at the 1998 Open at Royal Birkdale, he has had a penchant for the dramatic, and he has hit the heights many times since.
But, given the context, beating this fine American pairing probably tops even the final-round 62 he shot in the DP World Championships in Dubai in 2012, when it took a late charge by Rory McIlroy to overhaul him.
His putt on the 17th at the Medinah Country Club two years ago to level his match with Phil Mickelson was a singular moment of magic – rounded out with a winning birdie on the 18th to drag Europe back to parity with the USA in one of sport’s most memorable comebacks. But this was sustained excellence for almost the entire round in a match of the very highest quality.
“Henrik was a fantastic partner,” Rose said. “ I missed one from eight feet – I can’t believe I missed – but Henrik knocked it in from seven feet, and that started a phenomenal run, 10 birdies in a row.”
It was irresistible momentum – although the Americans did their best to stay in touch. Indeed, Watson and Kuchar were two up after six holes and did not play badly at all.
“Give Bubba and Matt credit,” Rose said. “We knew we were up against it with those guys and the spirit in which they played the match was phenomenal. They would have won nine times out of 10.”
It was not a promising start: Rose hit some jungle on the left, and Stenson found a bunker on the other side. Rose, whose choice for shower song we had learned earlier was Lose Yourself by Eminem, hardly hit another discordant note, with Stenson an admiring sideman.
The Swede, who gave way to Martin Kaymer as Rose’s foursomes partner in the afternoon, said: “It was definitely Justin who was the backbone in our team and I was lucky enough to be there backing up on a couple of occasions. I didn’t play my best. I think I played better than I did yesterday morning in the better-ball.
“We didn’t give it away. It’s hard to reflect on it that way [as one of the great Ryder Cup matches] when you’re playing, but I guess 21 birdies in 16 holes between us, that’s something special. Yeah, it might be a highlight to put on the big screen with the grandkids one day.”
The first of Rose’s birdies came on the difficult 5th, countering Watson’s 25-foot putt. He levelled on the 8th with another, breaking left to right extravagantly and the gallery sensed something special was unfolding.
His next choice of magic wand was a wood to thrash out of the rough to within 15 feet of the pin on the 9th, and he just missed an eagle securing a half. When he holed from off the green at the 10th Europe looked to be pulling away, but were shackled by another fine Watson birdie.
The birdies kept flying on a morning of astonishing golf, to the point where par was hardly a matter of vague consideration. Their 12-under was a Ryder Cup record, as were their 21 birdies.
“I got into reading the greens well,” Rose said. “When you visualise it like that ... it was really happening for me. We set a mini-goal of getting all-square by 16. To close it out then was phenomenal.”
In the afternoon, Rose and Kaymer found themselves in a similar situation, trailing after six holes against Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed, the young American hotshots leading by two until the eighth – when Reed slid a tricky short putt long. But Spieth’s birdie at the 9th restored the advantage, Rose failing to match him.
Rose lipped the cup to blow a chance at the 11th, and Reed saved par. Spieth missed a long par putt on 12, and the lead was cut to a single hole with six to go. It stayed that way until the par-four 15th, when Rose put Kaymer close enough to get back to all square for the first time since the fifth hole.
Europe got out of jail when Reed misread a two-footer to blow the 16th . Spieth’s tee-shot at the next hole was superb, and the Americans went to the par-five 18th back in front again. This time Spieth found the bunker, quickly joined in the same sandpit by Rose, but Kaymer had much the easier lie, and put his partner to within four feet with a great shot under pressure.
Rose, by this time tired but grateful, found his touch again to grab what could be a crucial half a point at just after 5.30pm to give Europe a 10-6 lead – the score they overhauled on the final day at Medinah two years ago.
“We had all the chances,” Kaymer said. “As we walked up the 18th, I said to Justin, ‘We deserve at least half a point.’”
Rose said of their opponents: “They’ve had a great Ryder Cup, but that match was there for the taking for both teams and they got a bad lie on the 18th.”
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