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Friday, June 23, 2017

Justin Rose - A Class Act

There was a time when I could beat Justin Rose on the golf course. Okay, he was 11 and I was 30 but who’s counting! When we met at North Hants Golf Club, Justin was shorter than the flagstick.

Justin grew up playing much of his golf at North Hants Golf Club. The club is in Fleet, Hampshire, about 30 miles south west of London. It was built in 1904 by James Braid on classic heathland and shares many characteristics of its more famous neighbors, Sunningdale and Swinley Forest. North Hants was a wonderful course to grow up on, as I did, and although not long it taught you to keep the ball in play and favor the left side. The heather was punishing and with the main Waterloo train line in play on 15, 16 and 17 you were well advised to keep it straight and true.

Justin could be found on the back of the North Hants range most days being coached by his wonderful father, Ken. Even in those days Justin was well mannered, respectful and quietly determined. Both Ken and Annie, his mother, spent countless hours driving Justin around the home counties to play in junior and senior events. As you might imagine, he had great success at these events representing his county (equivalent of state) and GB&I in the Walker Cup as a 17-year old. His amateur trophy collection also includes the St Andrews Links Trophy, English Boys Stroke Play Championship and the Peter McEvoy Trophy.

It was in 1998 that Justin shot to world-wide prominence with his performance in The Open Championship at Royal Birkdale. A fabulous 66 in the second round shot him up the field into tied second place and headline writers jumped into action - “Rose Blooms”, “Blooming Rose”, “Early Bloom”, “Late Bloomer”. You name it, they wrote it! His fine play continued through the third and fourth rounds, holding his young game together when many others would have cracked.

In the final round, coming to the 18th hole, Justin was in 7th place and with the weight of the British golf public and media on his back he famously holed out from 50 yards over the left-hand bunkers for birdie to finish tied 4th. He memorably raised his hands to the sky in an old Reebok sweater that had seen better days!

And so, it began! The next day Justin turned professional and, unfortunately, didn’t sign with our agency! To most observer’s surprise, he played the following week in the Dutch Open and then the week after that and the week after that. It’s well documented that he missed 21 cuts in a row on the European Tour. I would see him at North Hants most weekends during that time and, despite the disappointment and the pressure, he remained positive and confident that it would turn around. Even with this adversity, Justin earned his Tour card the following year. Also, that year, the sports marketing agency I worked for bought the agency Justin had signed with. And so, for a couple of years I had the pleasure of working with him, signing some solid endorsement deals and getting to know him on a professional level as well as continuing our personal friendship. As his stock rose, so bigger agencies became more interested, including one who made him a financial guarantee our smaller agency could not compete with. No, this wasn’t the movie Jerry Maguire where I learned this news from someone else. Justin called me and said let’s travel together to the next event as I need to discuss something with you. He told me about the deal, the numbers and asked me what I thought. I told him it was too good to turn down and we couldn’t write that kind of check, so take the deal. It was tough to see him move agencies, but it was the right move for him and the way that Justin handled it showed his strength of character and class.

Since that time, Justin’s career has truly blossomed (see, even I can do it!) with 23 professional wins on all the six continents on which golf is played. In addition, he has had extraordinary Ryder Cup successes on four European teams. Of these tournament wins, a couple stand out and have establish Justin in the big league of world players capable of winning on the biggest stages.

The first was at Merion Golf Club, the Pennsylvania gem designed by Hugh Wilson. This was the scene of Justin’s first major victory in 2013. His final round play against Phil Mickelson was outstanding and he became the first Englishman for 43 years to achieve the feat. His long iron play during the week can only be described as legendary.

For the second tournament, I was driving to Atlanta listening to golf on the radio – few things are quite as exciting as that right? It was the last day of the 72-hole 2016 Olympics golf event in Rio and Justin was tied with Henrik Stenson coming down the last hole. Once again, my nerves were in shreds as I listened to the commentary of the 18th hole pitches from Henrik and Justin that would decide the gold and silver medals. On this occasion, Justin prevailed with a deft pitch and putt for birdie and became the first Olympic golf champion since 1904.

In closing, let me talk about this year’s Masters Tournament and another stellar performance by Justin. Like many, I thought his name was on the trophy, but it was not to be. An incredible back nine by Sergio and a wayward play-off tee shot by Justin proved to be his undoing in his continuing quest for the green jacket. It was a great win for Sergio, but I was genuinely upset for Justin. No one watching could fail to have been impressed by the sportsmanship shown by both players. The genuine warmth shown for each other was apparent and real. For Justin, in defeat, to exhibit this emotion was extraordinary and the mark of the man.      

It’s a pleasure to have worked with Justin and I am honored to call him my friend. It’s rare in professional sports to witness a combination of sheer talent, integrity and grace. Justin, you are class act.