By Mark Lamport-Stokes
PINEHURST North Carolina (Reuters) - Missing the cut in his last PGA Tour start could be a blessing in disguise, says Justin Rose, who will be bidding this week to become the U.S. Open's first back-to-back winner in 25 years.
Rose failed to qualify for the last two rounds at the Memorial Tournament two weeks ago, and that gave him the chance to spend three days of early preparation for the year's second major in relative quiet on Pinehurst's No. 2 Course.
"I enjoy seeing the golf course without tons of people out there, you can really see the character of the place much more," the 33-year-old Englishman told reporters at Pinehurst Resort on Tuesday before heading out for nine more holes of practice.
"It gives you time to walk around the clubhouse and soak up some of the history. That's what happened to me at Merion last year and I wanted to do that again here.
"It's a historic venue, and just walking around the golf course, seeing some of the names on the trophies and some of the honors boards, it makes you excited about the venue. For me, that's as important as learning the golf course."
Rose produced remarkable poise and a Ben Hogan-like finish to claim his first major crown by two shots in last year's U.S. Open at Merion, becoming the first Englishman to win the title since Tony Jacklin at Hazeltine in 1970.
American Curtis Strange won consecutive U.S. Opens in 1988 and 1989 and Rose has set his sights on replicating that achievement this week at Pinehurst.
"Obviously that's the plan," Rose smiled. "If I look at it, I felt like I had a good opportunity (to win the U.S. Open) in 2012 at Olympic Club, too.
"I played really well there and finished six (shots) back but as a player sometimes it's a lot closer than that. I feel like the U.S. Open test suits me.
"It's a matter of just going out there," said the world number nine, who has recorded five top-10s in 11 starts on the 2013-14 PGA Tour, his best finish a tie for fourth at the elite Players Championship last month.
While Rose relishes the prospect of winning the U.S. Open for two successive years, he does not embrace the idea of going into this week at Pinehurst as the 'defending' champion.
"I don't even like that word, 'defending,' because it puts you already behind the eight-ball," he said. "You don't want to be out there being defensive at all.
"I'm just really excited about the opportunity this week presents. I'm the only one guy who has the opportunity to repeat, but I'm seeing that as a pressure-free situation. I'm just going to enjoy the challenge of trying to do that."
In keeping with tournament tradition, U.S. Open organizers have placed holder Rose in the same group as the British Open champion and the reigning U.S. Amateur winner for the first two rounds at Pinehurst.
Rose will tee off from the 10th hole in Thursday's opening round along with American Phil Mickelson, a five-times major winner who is seeking his first U.S. Open crown after a record six runner-up finishes, and English amateur Matthew Fitzpatrick.
"I enjoy playing golf with Phil," said Rose, who overhauled Mickelson in the final round of last year's U.S. Open to leave the American in a tie for second place. "I enjoy the spirit in which he plays the game, how free he is out there.
"He's got a great temperament for the game. Nothing seems to phase him. That's something that a lot of players can look up to him for. It's hard to play that way, and that has stood in good stead throughout his career for sure.
"I'm also looking forward to playing with Matt. I played 18 holes with him at Augusta this year and he's a really nice guy. He's got a great short game too, so hopefully it will be a great group to be a part of."
(Editing by Frank Pingue)