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Return to Royal Birkdale sure to stir emotions for Rose

7/10/2008 - Golf Justin Rose

Justin Rose needed to make a decision. There was no getting around it.

The world's ninth-ranked player had two choices. He could walk through the front gates of Royal Birkdale and block out everything he remembers about the place. He could forget his rise to fame as a 17-year-old at the Open Championship a decade ago, when he flirted with the notion of becoming the first amateur to win the Claret Jug since Bobby Jones in 1930. He could neglect the memory of the final-hole pitch shot that took two bounces and nestled into the cup for birdie as he raised both arms skyward in delight. He could overlook the vivid images that had lived on in the hearts and minds of every single fan who had walked in the gallery that week.


Or he could choose to embrace every single part of it.


For so long, too long perhaps, Rose selected the first option. It was just easier that way, allowing him to make a clean break rather than holding on to those memories. He enjoyed the ride, sure, but it was the pain of what followed that swallowed his emotional ties to that tournament.


"For a significant period of time, it probably distorted my view of my game and everybody else's view of my game, and probably made things a lot harder," recalls Rose, who finished in a share of fourth place that week, two strokes behind eventual champion Mark O'Meara. "You begin to almost think, yeah, maybe I was better off if that didn't happen."


One day after completing his brilliant boast at Birkdale, among myriad interviews and photo shoots and impromptu autograph sessions, Rose turned professional. It was simply a logical progression in his career. Still 10 days shy of his 18th birthday, the Johannesburg-born, London-raised upstart was never going to be Jones, a lifelong amateur who never played for pay. No, this golf gig was going to be a career, so why not strike while the irons -- not to mention the driver, wedges and putter -- were hot?


Later that week, in his first tournament as a professional, Rose opened with 6-over 77 at the Dutch Open. He rebounded with a 65 the next day, but it wasn't enough to reach the weekend and earn the first paycheck of his career. No biggie, right? There would be more events, of course, as sponsors lined up to offer exemptions to the latest European Tour star-in-waiting. He played in the Scandinavian Masters, the European Open, the German Masters … six more tournaments in all, with six more missed cuts on the ledger. Rose never even sniffed the bright side of 70.


The new year of 1999 brought hope for the future but it began much the same way the previous one ended. Rose, 18, missed the cut in his first start, then another and another. By the time his dubious streak was over, the darling of the Open Championship had failed to finish in the money 21 consecutive times.


"It got to a point where I didn't almost want to be exempt," Rose says now. "I wanted to kind of go underground and below the radar."


Even a potential reunion with Royal Birkdale was met with trepidation and, eventually, dismissed by Rose, who at the time wasn't ready to relive the good ol' days that seemed to be a million years ago.


"I was playing a Challenge Tour event at Formby Hall close by," he said. "And so much bad stuff had happened I suppose afterwards, I felt like, I didn't want to go in and make too much of a fuss. I just kind of wanted to skulk away quietly, really and not make a nuisance of myself. That's why I waited."


If good things come to those who wait, then it was obvious Rose was about to embark on a very positive change to his career path. Three years after turning pro, Rose transformed himself into a fully exempt, fully functional, inherently competitive member of the European Tour. In 2002, he finally broke through for his first victory at the Dunhill Championship in his birthplace, then followed with another win in South Africa, plus one in Japan and one in England.


The most glorious moments of Rose's short professional career instantly became bittersweet, though. His father, Ken, who first handed him a plastic golf club at 11 months old, passed away due to leukemia in September 2002 at the age of 57. It's no coincidence that Rose's game hit a gradual downward spiral in the time soon after.


He played well in 2003, OK in '04 and decent in '05, but he was just another not-so-fresh face, biding his time on both the European and U.S.-based PGA tours. His placement on the Official World Golf Ranking plummeted while his status as the next Nick Faldo all but vanished.


Once again, though, Rose wilted and then bloomed.


Last year, he was in contention at the Masters until a double-bogey on Augusta National's penultimate hole left him in a share of fifth place. While he has yet to break through and win his first event on the PGA Tour, he earned results of 12th or better in each of the four major championships and posted two wins on the European Tour en route to clinching the prestigious Order of Merit title.


"Being representative of the award, it did make me feel like, yeah, I've come a long way," says Rose, who has focused more on the PGA Tour this season and is currently ranked 81st on the money list. "I felt like everything that had happened in the past was kind of water under the bridge by having got to this point in my career."


Returning to Royal Birkdale for the first Open Championship at the venue since 1998, Rose has experienced the ups and downs of a roller-coaster career, from precocious teen to slumping pro to world-class talent. Cut out the painstakingly long journey and it's an end result that many saw coming years ago.


"I know he struggled for a long time, missed a lot of cuts," said Brian Watts, who played in the final pairing with Rose in '98. "But you have to give him a lot of credit for getting out of that slump he was in. How many times does it happen where you see a kid do something special and all of a sudden, you never hear from him again? That's what happened. He must be tough mentally. All the expectations, he couldn't make a cut, and now look at him. He's a top-10 player in the world."


When he sets foot on the grounds at Royal Birkdale for golf's oldest major championship, Rose will do so with those memories of a decade ago not lingering over him, haunting him like ghosts of Opens past. Instead, he will be soaking them in, recalling that experience and using it to gain any competitive advantage he may have this time.


In fact, he has already begun the process by reversing the decision he made early in his pro career and touring the course less than two months ago. His analysis?


"It was nice to go back to Birkdale 10 years later and feel like I could turn up with my head held high," he says. "It was a nice feeling."


That feeling will be nothing compared with the one he'll experience if everything goes his way once again at Birkdale. Unlike 10 years ago, Rose is now one of the favorites to hold the Claret Jug aloft on that final green. The journey very well could come full circle.

Jason Sobel covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.