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 hoped that it has broken the spell, and guys can continue to match up some for themselves.”
Westwood for the last five years gave England its best hope. 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.
And 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.