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British Open: A place for fairytales

From golden boy to forgotten man, Justin Rose rises from the ashes of English sports to show the Open who's boss.

Justin Rose
Justin Rose of England poses with his putter on July 12, 2010 in St. Andrews, Scotland. (Stuart Franklin/Getty Images)

BOSTON — Justin Rose has always described his final shot of the 1998 British Open as a “fairytale ending.” And while that descriptive is over-used in the realm of sports, Rose was, as they say across the pond, spot on.

On that memorable Sunday — playing along the Irish Sea at Royal Birkdale in Southport, England — Rose, then a 17-year-old amateur, took aim at the 18th green from deep rough 65 yards away and somehow bounced it onto the green and into the cup. The miracle shot enabled Rose to finish his isle’s most illustrious golf tournament in a tie for fourth place — and the youngster stretched his arms to the heavens to acknowledge the improbable finish.

The stellar performance propelled the teen directly into the pro ranks and expectations were hardly modest. England believed it now had its own prodigy who would soon challenge the young American superstar, Tiger Woods. But if Royal Birkdale marked the end of one fairytale, the next chapter could only be described as grim. Rose missed the cut — and, of course, a payday — at his first 21 professional tournaments.

The luster had totally worn off and the attention of fans had long ago strayed elsewhere by the time Rose won his first tournament, in South Africa, almost four years later. That triggered another ascension — he made it to number 33 in the world rankings — and, eventually, a leap across the Atlantic to test himself on the American PGA Tour.

Rose didn’t exactly fail that test, but he certainly didn’t ace it either. You can make an awful lot of money — many millions — as a solid, journeyman who plays some fine rounds and occasionally contends. When he did contend, he tended to falter down the stretch, an irony that may have convinced him he had already used up his quota of miracles. Entering the 2010 season, he still had never won a PGA event and that fourth-place finish at Royal Birkdale remained his best showing in a major championship.

F. Scott Fitzgerald never claimed to know much about English lives and Justin Rose has turned out to have a second act. This season, a dozen years removed from his glorious introduction to the golfing public, Rose has rediscovered the sizzle in his game. He won his first PGA tournament this spring and then earlier this month won another.

The second victory propelled his 2010 earnings to more than $3 million, trailing only golf titans Ernie Els and Phil Mickelson. But far more important, it qualified him to play in the 150th British Open, beginning Thursday at historic St. Andrews in Scotland. And while British books still anoint Tiger as the favorite, Rose suddenly finds himself amid the next batch of contenders at odds between 20 and 25-1.