It was a wild year in golf for a multitude of reasons, but the quality of major winners was perhaps the biggest reason why it was such a great season. There were no flash-in-the-pan major winners, those one-hit wonders like Michael Campbell that a major championship can often produce. All four winners were established world-class players, guys who had been contenders before and on the verge of a career-defining victory.
Adam Scott and Justin Rose, two close friends who had come so close before, took control in the final hour on Sunday at the season's first two majors to set the tone for the rest of the summer. Rose, who leaned on Scott for major championship advice after the Aussie finally broke through at Augusta, slithered to the top of the leaderboard when almost all the focus was on Phil Mickelson during a marathon weekend at Merion.
For years, Rose was used as a cautionary exhibit of the dangers of turning pro too soon. As an amateur and teenager, he finished tied for fourth at 1998 British Open. He had whipped his fellow Englishmen into a frenzy, thinking the next great phenom had arrived. Rose turned pro just after he burst onto the scene in that major, and then promptly missed the cut in his first 21 events. There was some concern that the stretch while he was so young and trying to figure it out had irrevocably damaged his career. But there was too much talent, and he slowly emerged from the wilderness to start contending at the biggest events in 2007. Then in 2010, he started picking up wins, posting four victories at some of the Tour's most competitive stops between 2010 and 2012.
After two top 10 finishes in the 2012 majors, and that steady streak from 2010 onward, it was no surprise to see Rose on the first page of the leaderboard in Philly. But he was really just lurking while Mickelson made all the highlights, both good and bad.
The U.S. Open is the toughest test in golf, a grueling march with rare birdies and frequent risk of blow-up holes. Rose, however, did not make a double all week and never shot higher than 1-over 71 in his four days at Merion. The steady grind put him in perfect position to take the win from Mickelson, who sloppily carded two double bogeys in three holes on the front nine on Sunday.
And once Mickelson provided the opening, Rose grabbed the chance and kept a leaderboard loaded with the top players -- Mickelson, Hunter Mahan, Ernie Els, Jason Day, Jason Dufner -- at a distance. He steadily rolled in putts to save par on the back nine, and picked up two crucial birdies to hover right at even-par:
Rose hit Merion's finishing stretch, the toughest of the year on Tour, as the final round leader at the most intense major.
Birdies were almost impossible on Merion's last three holes, and a few steady pars coming into the clubhouse would probably win it at 1-over. Standing in the 18th fairway, Rose pulled a 4-iron to hit his approach from the vicinity where Ben Hogan hit a 1-iron that was captured in perhaps the most famous golf photo ever. And Rose sent a laser up to the green, the ball rolling just past the cup and to the back edge. It was an astounding shot that was put right on the flagstick and would nestle just a couple feet from the hole in almost any other situation in any other tournament. Given the conditions that Sunday, some argued it was better than Hogan's famous 1-iron.
The 18th was playing so brutal that Rose would need four quality shots just to make par. A bogey would provide an opening for Mickelson, but a par would pretty much wrap it up. He had a tricky up-and-down and Rose decided to play a fairway metal from the back of the green. It worked perfectly and he put it just an inch off the edge of the cup for a tap-in par, which prompted some tears as he came to the realization he had probably just won the U.S. Open.
As expected, Mickelson could not come close to making a birdie at the impossible last to close the gap. Rose walked off with his first major, continuing a run of first-time winners. It was a win that came together quietly, and then quickly it was over with the Englishman cleaning up in the final hour of the broadcast.
Like Scott, it won't be surprising to see Rose in the mix at all four majors in 2014, and beyond. But his 4-iron approach shot, and victory at Merion, were one of the stories that defined the summer of 2013.