FAR HILLS, N.J. – Justin Rose stands over his second shot on the par-4 18th hole at Merion Golf Club, 229 yards from the hole, which is cut in the back-left section of the green. As an anxious crowd looks on, he takes a swing with a 4-iron and pulls his approach long and left.
“It’s playing short today!” the reigning U.S. Open champion exclaims, and 11 of his closest friends respond with laughter. Nearly four months earlier, Rose had hit an outstanding 4-iron approach shot on the 72nd hole of the championship that skirted the hole before barely trickling over the green, leading to an up-and-down that all but sealed his first major victory. The Englishman returned to the site of his triumph in October, as part of this year’s edition of an annual golf getaway the group has dubbed the JR Challenge. The experience wouldn’t have been complete without a reprisal of Rose’s pressure-packed shot, along with a homemade plaque to mark the occasion.
“All I remember is…I’m glad I don’t have to do it again,” Rose says to the group, which leads to more laughter.
The junket involving these close friends, many of whom grew up with Rose in Hampshire, England, has grown over the years, and the recently minted major champion has been a part of it from the beginning. It started in 2004 when five of them borrowed Justin’s residence in South Africa for a short golf holiday. In his absence, Rose paid to have a trophy made for the winner of the weekend’s activities, and a tradition was born. Rose joined the group for the festivities the following year, and has played in four of the eight that have been held since.
“It’s Justin’s time to let his hair down,” said Paul McDonnell, a European Tour representative for TaylorMade Golf and longtime JR Challenge competitor who has known Rose since he was 11 years old. “It’s his one week out of the year where he can catch up with his mates. We see him every week on TV.”
The group, most of whom carry single-digit handicaps, loves having Rose join them when his schedule allows, but they certainly don’t show him any mercy during the competition, which has its own website and for which each participant receives a personalized golf bag. When Rose first joined them, he was assigned a plus-4 handicap. After establishing himself as a regular winner on the European Tour, they adjusted that to plus-6. Once he became a winner on the PGA Tour in 2010, it changed to plus-8. Now, as a major champion, he carries a plus-10 in the competition, making the 69 he shot in his return to Merion a little easier to compete against, at least within this group.
“It’s all about fun, but everyone wants their name on that trophy,” said McDonnell, who has finished second six times without a victory. “Everybody comes to do battle.”
This year’s trip, which took place in early October, allowed the globe-trotting Rose to relax with his buddies and also revisit a pair of golf courses that produced some of the finest moments of his career. In addition to Merion, the group teed it up at nearby Aronimink Golf Club, where Rose won the 2010 AT&T National, his second of five career PGA Tour titles. His excitement at returning to Merion was obvious to everyone in the group.
“He was telling us about how much different everything was compared to when the U.S. Open was there,” said McDonnell. “He said to us, ‘Boys, you’re in for a treat. Just don’t hit it into the rough.’”
The rough, understandably, wasn’t as thick as it was during the U.S. Open, nor the fairways as narrow, but Rose was still able to relive his pinnacle golf achievement with his friends. Once they reached the last four holes, Rose showed everyone exactly where he played from during the final round.
While much of the course setup was different from his memorable week, the group arranged ahead of time for the hole location on No. 18 to be the same as it was on Sunday of the U.S. Open, one of a few special touches to mark the occasion. The group surprised Rose by all dressing in the identical gear he wore during the final round (they provided an outfit for him, too). In addition, following their round, Rose took the time to present everyone on Merion’s U.S. Open Executive Committee and the Merion Board of Governorswith a framed token of appreciation for their work during the championship.
The JR Challenge has been held on its share of classic golf courses, among them National Golf Links of America and Sebonack Golf Club on Long Island and Royal County Down and Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland. Last month’s return to Merion, however, is one that Rose isn’t likely to soon forget, as McDonnell tells it.
“Justin wanted to stay there. If there was a hotel, he would have slept there.”
Scott Lipsky is the social media specialist at the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.