Justin Rose: Defending U.S. Open a 'pressure-free situation'

Justin Rose hits out of the bunker on the 12th hole during a practice round for the U.S. Open in Pinehurst, N.C., Wednesday, June 11, 2014. (Charlie Riedel/AP)

PINEHURST, N.C. - Justin Rose walked to his ball in the 18th fairway at Merion Golf Club near the plaque celebrating Ben Hogan's iconic 1-iron shot in the 1950 U.S. Open, pulled out his 4-iron, and hit his approach to a back-left hole location on the green.

But this wasn't the 2013 U.S. Open. Rose already had won that nearly four months earlier at Merion, making a clutch par after a 4-iron second shot from that same spot to a tough pin. No, this was the "JR Challenge," a self-named tournament in which Rose annually gathers 10 of his friends from England to play a series of great golf courses.

The fact that one stop for the event last October was at Merion shows how much Rose appreciates the golf course and the club, and he believes that the feeling of the members toward him is mutual.

"The club has been fantastic," Rose said this week during a break in his preparations for the U.S. Open, beginning Thursday on the No. 2 course at Pinehurst Resort and Country Club. "I had a lot of correspondence back and forth with them. They have been really welcoming. Going back there with 10 of my friends was the best moment.

"We were all in the 18th fairway re-creating my shot - not Hogan's shot - which was kind of fun to be able to do. As we were hitting the shots into the 18th green, my trophy was by the pin, and the club had put the 18th-pin placement in for us that day so all my friends could experience that. That was a truly great moment."

During his reign as 2013 Open champion, Rose, 33, has enjoyed quite a ride of being recognized - especially at every tournament in which he competed. He said his first major win "moved the needle" on his career and gave him a different perspective.

"I really want to treat this major that I've won as a gift," he said, "and give me the ability to now sort of freewheel for the rest of my career, play free, play loose, just go after it. I've got really no pressure on me from that perspective anymore.

"I think a lot of us put a lot of pressure on ourselves to get over the hump in a major championship. Just from an odds standpoint, they're hard to win. So the fact I have won now, I think that really gives me the ability to have fun doing it again. Hopefully, that will give me an advantage down the stretch in my own future occasions."

His next chance starts Thursday at Pinehurst No. 2, a direct opposite of Merion in that it has wider fairways and no rough. Despite the width and a length of 7,565 yards - almost 600 yards longer than Merion - accuracy will be very important, particularly with approach shots to greens where misstruck shots will roll off on all sides.

"It's a little bit like Augusta in that sense, in that you're playing to zones rather than just going at the pins and trying to hit greens," Rose said. "So precision iron play is important, and being able to control the ball once it lands is important to me."

Rose can become the first player in 25 years - since Curtis Strange in 1989 - to win back-to-back Opens. That is something he sees as a "pressure-free situation."

"These tournaments are so hard to win," he said, "I'm just going to enjoy the challenge of trying to do that."