Reigning Olympic champion Justin Rose is a golfer who lives on the leaderboard. With four top-fives this year, including a heart-breaking runner-up finish at the Masters, audiences will likely see quite a bit of him at this week’s U.S. Open, a tournament he has won before and believes he can again. We had a chance to grab a drink with him just before his first visit to Erin Hills to talk about golf’s most brutal test, the loss at Augusta, and what it's like to wear Olympic gold.
How did you come to the game of golf?
Really through my dad. He was a mad king golfer, and he realized if he was going to spend any time on the golf course he was going to have to take me with him. So from the age of five, I’d been playing nearly every day, and he could see that I had an inclination to want to go, and I never fell out of love with it. I felt like I played enough other sports to stay fresh and not feel burnt out. But there were times when my dad would push me. I think he could see there was a future there, and he wanted me to understand the sacrifices I was going to have to make if I wanted to make this my career. I was going to have to make choices, and I think he was quite right in that. Nothing comes easy. At the age of 14, all the other sports fell by the wayside, and golf continued to be the one for me. I had enough success at every age to keep going at it.
When you’re not playing golf, what are you doing?
Living in the Bahamas, I enjoy anything to do with the water: paddle boarding, snorkeling, fishing, bobbing about in the ocean. That’s really become our way of life. The other sport I really enjoy is paddle tennis, which I think is one of the fastest growing in the world. It’s easy to play and the injury risk is lower than tennis, but you still work up a sweat.
You’re on the road a bit, how do you achieve a work-life balance?
It’s critical. I tend to separate things. When I’m on the road, I’m very focused. I tend to be quite structured in how I do things — diet, fitness — so, truly, when I’m on the road, I’m working, and when I come home, I have that little bit of leeway to be Dad, to be a little more relaxed and enjoy myself with friends, and that’s important. I view that as part of the work. Letting your brain go soft, letting the antennae go down and recharge helps you go back out on the road and perform. If you’re grinding at both ends, you’re never fresh to put out your best performance. Though some weeks at home I use as training camps with double sessions in the gym. Other weeks I have my coaches come in and try to refine parts of my game. Those are the weeks that I liken to being an actor. You’re learning your lines and the golf course becomes the performance.
I understand you’ve started playing around making cocktails. What is your go-to drink right now?
My daytime drink is one I’ve somewhat concocted myself. There’s a drink in the U.K. called a Gunners. It’s ginger beer, ginger ale, Angostura bitters, and a lime wedge. I’ve taken that and substituted the ginger ale for club soda to take some of the sugar out and added Glenmorangie. (Rose is global golf ambassador for the highland scotch maker.) When we have people over, I love to make a big pitcher so people can refill at their pleasure, and it saves me running up and down to the bar.
Obviously, you are playing golf at the highest level. What do you need to do to improve your game?
At this point it’s all about refinement and also understanding what I do well and to continue to protect that. You can make changes in the pursuit of better and upset the apple cart. Of course, there’s no failure only feedback. So it’s important, at times, to push and get to the edge of something not working. Short game and putting are the two areas I’ve taken some risk with in the last couple of years, but I think they are beginning to pay off. I went to a mallet-style putter and changed to the claw grip, and I think Augusta was a learning moment for me. I went to bed on Saturday night and didn’t think about my putting. Where as in the past, I had gone to bed on Saturday night thinking, ‘Oh, God, I hope I putt well tomorrow.” The fact that it was a non-thought, that tells me that I’ve made a change that is beginning to pay off.
You brought up Augusta. How do you deal with loss on the golf course? How do you deal with failure?
Obviously the Masters was disappointing. It felt like I should have won. I played well enough to win. But I also think a week or two after, I said to myself, "You know what, there’s no hole in my heart. I’m OK. I don’t feel like I lost anything.” I’ve lost my dad. I’ve lost things in my life. I feel fine within myself. If I caught myself thinking about it, I’d feel disappointed. But I wouldn’t go to bed or get up thinking about it. Also, I’m not going to judge it until the year is out, because who knows what the rest of the season holds. It has the potential to be an incredible year, so I’m trying to keep my head down and keep striving.
How do you like your chances going into the U.S. Open?
I think they are good. Obviously, I like that style of golf. Some people have complained that it’s too brutal. But I think every major championship needs its own identity. The Masters has it, the Open Championship has it, and even the PGA has it, as the most ‘normal’ major we play. I like that fact that the U.S. Open is regarded as the most brutal test. It’s a style of golf I’ve learned to embrace, and I’m up for the challenge. I think mindset is often 80 percent of it. I think I’m in a good spot there; hopefully I can go and execute.
How do you prepare for a major championship on a golf course you’ve never seen?
I think that no one has played it. Some of the guys played the U.S. Amateur there, but very few. My caddie and I relish the opportunity to play venues where no one has been. We feel that’s a benefit to us. We can strategize and set up a game plan very quickly. I’ll head there a week early, so I can spend eight hours on the golf course and I can go at my own pace and learn as much as I want. If I leave my practice rounds to the Monday or Tuesday of championship week, I have to go at the pace of the field, and I’ll only get half the work done all while getting attacked with a sharpie for autographs. The learning environment is not as rich.
What has been the most important moment in your career?
I think the U.S. Open is still the most important. In golf there is a big stigma about if you’re a major champion or if you’re not, and having that monkey off my back is huge and will hopefully enable me to win more of them. Every time I’m in contention, I have that positive narrative to go into the weekend. But the gold medal in Rio has blown me away. Not by what it’s meant to me or my fellow pros, but what it's meant to the golfing public. Going into it, none of us really knew what it was worth, and I think the golf fans really paid attention and watched, and it seemed to resonate with them. So that’s been a real treat, to come back with the medal and have it actually be important to people. For me, it's turned into one of the greatest achievements I’ve ever had.
Should the Olympics be considered a major championship?
No, I don’t think it should be. I just think it’s the perfect asterisk to your career. For me, I hope my career reads — multiple major champion and Olympic gold medalist. It sits with my U.S. Open trophy but very much in different worlds. It resonates with people outside of golf. The U.S. Open is a much bigger achievement in the golfing bubble than the Olympics. You beat a bigger field, you play on tougher courses. It’s a harder win. But in the world of sport, an Olympic gold medal, it goes beyond golf, which is cool.
What is the one tournament you want to win most?
I’ve finished second in the Masters twice now. So, when you taste it you want it. But the Open Championship is my home major. With the history and relationship I have with it, it’s one that would round out my career. It would be a full-circle moment for me.
Do you like your shot this year?
Birkdale is one of my favorites on the rotation. This will be my second time back since I finished fourth as an amateur. So, I’m going to prepare hard for it.
Many athletes believe very deeply in luck and streaks. Are you superstitious? Do you have a good-luck charm?
I consciously try hard to stay away from them. Golf is hard enough without creating neurotic patterns. So I don’t have a lucky marker. I’m more than happy to take one from the crowd on the first tee. There was a guy who gave me a lucky piece of crystal. He’s kind of the old guy who turns up at the course occasionally and he always finds me. So he gives me a little piece of crystal, and I think it was in the bag when I won the U.S. Open. I think my caddie is the superstitious one. He kept that thing in the bag the whole time.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
One I take in hindsight — My dad passed away when I was 21 — he said to my mom, “Don’t worry, Annie, Justin will know what to do." It’s not necessarily advice, but it’s confidence he gave me through my mom. Hearing him say that, even second hand, helps me trust my decisions, and I try to live by that.
If you could only play one more round of golf, where would you play and with whom would you play it?
It would be with my dad. One of my regrets is when I turned pro we stopped playing golf together. It became a bit more like a job. We used to practice and talk about it, but we wouldn’t just go out and play and have fun, which is what we did up until that point. So, I’d want to just go play golf. Carry our own sticks and have a good time at Merion. I’d take him down memory lane, walk the walk, and tell him what I was thinking. I’d also like to take my mom to Merion, and do exactly the same thing with her.