Stoke Park, Buckinghamshire: There is the same puppyish perkiness about Justin Rose at 36 as in the defining summer of his youth.
In 1998, he was the beanpole with the baggy red sweater and the cherubic smile, electrifying Royal Birkdale thanks to his chip-in at the last.
This week he returns to that Southport links a golfing aristocrat, with a US Open trophy and his sport’s first gold medal at the Olympics for 104 years.
“I’m a lot more at peace now,” he says. “I feel I’ve done the walk down memory lane. Let’s turn up as a legitimate contender to win the Open, not talk about the kid who nearly did.”
Rose’s public stock has seldom been higher. He was always an esteemed figure with European Ryder Cup fans, who have taken to chanting his name to the tune of Spandau Ballet’s Gold. “Justin Rose, Rose!” It begins.
“Always believe in your swing ...” Today, though, he is lavishly acclaimed for his exemplary grace in defeat at this year’s Masters, where he succumbed to long-time compadre Sergio Garcia in one of Augusta’s greatest final-round duels.
“Incredible battle out there,” he tweeted, moments after embracing the Spaniard on the 18th green.
“Sport in the moment can be tough. But it’s just sport.”
Adulation for this feat of diplomacy, of which Kofi Annan would have been proud, has scarcely stopped.
“The message from everybody who texted me was they were amazed at the way I handled it,” he says.
“I was surprised at how strongly it came across. I’m not sure what I did that was so poignant. I was happy for Sergio, it was his time, if you think of all the close calls he had gone through. He had been in my situation more than once.”
As we talk in the stately grandeur of Stoke Park’s clubhouse, where the ladies’ team are just about to head out for their weekly foursomes, he is, it would be fair to say, far from tormented by the near miss.
“I don’t have a hole in my heart,” he smiles.
Rose has just flown in from the Bahamas, where he owns a sprawling ranch beside crystalline Caribbean waters.
For years he and his wife Kate made their base in the go-to elite golfers’ enclave of Lake Nona, Orlando, but he claims the switch has been a revelation.
Living back under the Queen’s umbrella in this Commonwealth paradise has, he reflects, helped strengthen his connection to the UK.
“It’s like a little halfway house. I’m on America’s doorstep, I get to dip my toe in and play the tour very easily, but there’s a flight back to London every day. Kate is determined that our children feel English, that this is should be who they are. She adores London, as a Chiswick girl born and bred. We are here for eight weeks this summer — it will be exciting for us to be a little less nomadic.”
Rose speaks in a curious accent, as mid-Atlantic as a sunset over the Azores, with a slight South African lilt from his early life in Johannesburg. How, I wonder, now that he has the wealth of Croesus, does he keep his children striving as he once did?
“It’s an interesting one,” he says. “You definitely want more for your kids than you have yourself, but that’s not necessarily a good thing. What got me to where I am today is a hunger and a desire to win tournaments, and all the trappings that came with that. I didn’t have much. I grew up with a loving, supportive family, with a roof over my head, but there was no luxury.
“It’s a concern, how you navigate through your life and the successes that have come with it, while not spoiling your children. Initially, when Leo was two or three, I was keen for him to play golf and, who knows, follow in my footsteps if he was good at it. He’s shown no aptitude for golf whatsoever, he finds it tedious beyond belief. In a way it’s good, because I see with Leo that he is already trying to forge his own way in the world.
“I asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up and he said, ‘I want to be Leo Rose’. That’s quite cool, being your own man at eight.” Rose recalls the struggles of his own parents all too clearly. For reasons even he cannot fathom, they decided, upon their arrival in Britain in the mid-80s, to branch into the business of selling swimwear, apparently unaware of weather constraints.
“All I remember are swimsuits, leotards, fitness gear kicking about,” says Rose.
“It was a tough time for them, in the aftermath of a recession, straight off the plane, to find any kind of steady job. They had to work just to keep bread on the table.”
To watch replays of Rose’s wondrous closing eagle at Birkdale, which vaulted him into a share of fourth place as an amateur, is to be struck by the reaction of his father Ken and mother Annie, both trying to blend into their crowd but both leaping wildly for joy. In that freeze-frame in time, it seemed that a glorious career beckoned.
As so often, though, elevation to the professional ranks came as a chastening jolt, with 21 consecutive missed cuts.
When Rose finally savoured the major triumph that his talent richly merited, at the US Open in 2013, his first response was to look tearfully to the skies in tribute to his father, who had passed away from cancer 11 years earlier, aged just 57.
Many one-and-done US Open champions have been relegated to historical footnotes: Steve Jones, Lucas Glover, Michael Campbell. Rose, however, belongs to a more exalted bracket, not just because of his graft, or his 13 top-10 finishes in majors, but his Olympic gold in Rio last summer, on golf’s first appearance in the Games since 1904.
“Normally, I get zero street cred in my house,” he says. “But that’s the one where Leo was emotional and tearful when I won. A US Open within golf is a big deal, but an Olympic gold? Kids know what that is.”
Rose approached the Olympics not with the disdain of so many of his peers, who cited everything from the Zika virus to scheduling conflicts to justify their no-shows, but wide-eyed delight. “There was misunderstanding among some of us about what the Olympics meant.
For me, whenever you represent your country, you try to be the best version of yourself. Even when I was playing England amateur golf, the minute you put on a shirt with a crest on it, there’s something about it that makes you look back on everything you have learnt and bring it to the fore.” It helps that Kate, as a former national-standard rhythmic gymnast, was on hand to stress the significance of the moment.
“I might not be married now if I hadn’t gone,” Rose laughs.
“A crucial part of my experience in Rio was visiting the gymnasts one night. Their ability to focus was second to none. The chaos they compete in — with music going on, scores being announced, six events going on at the same time — staggered me. Once I was walking into that pre-shot routine, nothing was going to stop me, even if a herd of elephants ran across the fairway.” Asked what sustains his motivation as he prepares for Birkdale, his sentimental favourite on the Open rotation, Rose is unambiguous. “Legacy,” he says.
“I’ve always been a player more interested in finding a place in the game than making money. I’m a history books guy. And I feel like there is more to give. A career grand slam is what would blow me away. “With the Masters this year — a knife-edge affair, which could have gone either way — I would have been halfway towards it. It made me believe it was possible. “But the other thing that keeps me going,” he explains, leaning forward with added intensity, “is the fear of not living up to my potential. That takes me back to being a kid at Birkdale, imagining what I could one day achieve. I want to be the old man in the rocking chair, reminiscing on life, just having that peace of mind that says, ‘Yeah, I gave it everything’. That’s why I work hard — to have no regrets.”