ARDMORE, Pa. — The most recent golden era of golf in England had everything but the one prize that brings credibility: a major championship.
Lee Westwood and Luke Donald reached No. 1 in the world. Ian Poulter turned into a rock star in the Ryder Cup. There was a strong supporting cast that included Paul Casey. Always lurking, and finally delivering, was Justin Rose.
The only player at Merion who never had worse than a 71 over four demanding days, Rose passed his biggest test Sunday when he split the middle of the 18th fairway with his tee shot and hit a 4-iron that set him up for a par on the toughest hole to win the U.S. Open.
The question no longer is why the English can’t win a major. It’s who might be next.
“I really hope it does inspire them,” Rose said after his two-shot win over Phil Mickelson and Jason Day. “I think it was always going to be a matter of time before one of us broke through. It was just going to be who. And I always hoped it was going to be me to be the first, obviously. But I really hope that it has broken the spell, and guys can continue to match up some for themselves.”
Westwood gave England its best hope for the last five years. A 15-foot birdie putt was all that kept him out of a playoff in the 2008 U.S. Open won by Tiger Woods. He missed another playoff at Turnberry in the 2009 British Open when he three-putted for bogey from long range on the 72nd hole. He had a one-shot lead going into the final round of the Masters in 2010, but couldn’t hold off Mickelson.
Donald became the first player to win the money title on the PGA Tour and European Tour in the same season, and he stayed at No. 1 for 56 weeks. That gave him the distinction of being No. 1 going into the most majors — seven — without ever having won.
Poulter was runner-up in the British Open at Royal Birkdale in 2008, though his best play was when he wore Europe’s colors in the Ryder Cup.
Then there was Rose.
His win at Merion made him the first Englishman since Tony Jacklin in 1970 at Hazeltine to win America’s national championship, and he became the first from England to win any major in 17 years, dating to Nick Faldo’s six-shot rally to beat Greg Norman in the 1996 Masters for his third green jacket.
“Tony Jacklin was a pioneer,” Rose said, referring to the two-time major champion. “Golf has become a lot more global. There are more international players over here, so to see us players come through and win championships … Jacklin did it maybe when it was out of the norm, and we certainly grew up dreaming about emulating him.”
England, a proud golfing nation, was in danger of being morphed into a much broader group. It was part of Europe, which got three majors from Padraig Harrington of Ireland and one from Martin Kaymer of Germany. The Union Jack has been carried in recent years by Rory McIlroy, Graeme McDowell and Darren Clarke. The last British player to win a major was Paul Lawrie at Carnoustie in the 1999 British Open.
England has its own niche in history, and the timing of Rose’s win was symbolic.
This is the 100-year anniversary of Francis Ouimet putting American golf on the front of the sports pages when he took down English heavyweights Harry Vardon and Ted Ray at The Country Club. Vardon won seven majors, same as Sam Snead and Arnold Palmer. Also part of that great triumvirate was J.H. Taylor, whose five majors includes one footnote — the only man in major championship history to have the lowest score in all four rounds.
Now, the Cross of St. George can fly proudly.
“Congrats finally an Englishman wins a major,” Poulter tweeted late Sunday evening.
That the lot fell to Rose should not have been a surprise.
A year ago, he led the PGA Tour in greens hit in regulation. Going into the U.S. Open, he was tops in total driving, which combines the ranking of driving distance and driving accuracy. At some point, it began to dawn on the 32-year-old Rose that this major might be the one he was most likely to win.
“I felt like this tournament really began to be on my radar as possibly the one major championship that would suit me the most,” Rose said. “I had always felt good at Augusta, always dreamed about winning The Open Championship. But I thought this one actually might have been my best chance. I really targeted Merion. … So I just love it when a plan comes together.”
The rest of his career took time for everything to fall into place.
Rose famously holed a long pitch shot on the final hole at Royal Birkdale in the 1998 British Open when he was 17, and he turned pro the next week. Instead of blazing a trail, he never flamed out by missing 21 consecutive cuts. He never lost hope, however, and eventually matured into the complete golfer everyone thought he might be. Rose won on two strong courses, Muirfield Village and Aronimink. He captured a FedEx Cup playoff event on the PGA Tour. He won his first World Golf Championship last year at Doral.
And now this.
“He’s got loads of talent, a great game, a great work ethic,” Hunter Mahan said. “He’s just one of those guys that had to keep plugging along, and keep trusting himself more than anything else — just trust his abilities, because his abilities are really second to none.”
Rose should have had a notion he could handle the big stage. It was just under nine months ago when he was headed to a crucial loss — against Mickelson, of all people — in the Ryder Cup at Medinah last year. Rose holed a 12-foot par putt on the 16th, a 35-foot birdie putt on the 17th and a 12-foot birdie putt on the last hole for a 1-up victory, the key to Europe’s remarkable rally.
That was a team win for Europe. This was for England.
“It’s been too long, really,” Donald said. “I think we’ve had a lot of talent come out of England, and hopefully we’ve broken our bad period. This will be a great win for Justin, and for England.”
Rose ended his night by tweeting a photo of the shiny U.S. Open trophy as the centerpiece of a dining table, champagne glasses ready to be filled.