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Justin Rose goes for back-to-back titles at US Open - and tries to keep mind off World Cup

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PINEHURST, N.C. - Now that he's got that pesky major out of the way, Justin Rose is learning to savour the quest for his next big title.

He's not nearly as optimistic about England's chances in the World Cup.

Rose is the reigning champion heading into the U.S. Open at Pinehurst, a player who is certainly more at ease with his place in golf now that he's got one of those prestigious titles on his resume.

"In the last few months, I sort of realized what I have achieved and it's time to embrace it, enjoy it, and let that be the strength for me to go on and win more," Rose said Tuesday.

Of course, there's another big sporting event beginning this week, one that will certainly have the attention of Rose and his fellow English players.

Their soccer-mad nation has a huge opening match in the World Cup against Italy on Saturday, the soccer game scheduled to begin in Brazil about the time the third round of the Open is wrapping up in North Carolina.

Reflecting the mood of his homeland, Rose is not very hopeful.

England's only World Cup title came in 1966 and expectations are low for this team, a youthful squad playing in one of the most difficult groups.

"I would say there's probably more chance of one of us winning the major than England winning the World Cup," said Rose, among 11 English players in the Pinehurst field. "Sad to say."

Rose's primary focus will be on his bid to become the first repeat U.S. Open champion in a quarter-century.

Last year's triumph at Merion had been in the making for nearly that long, ever since Rose finished fourth as an 18-year-old amateur at the 1998 British Open. He spent the next 15 years trying to finish the job, chasing a major title that seemed increasingly elusive as the close calls began to pile up, the weight of expectations becoming almost too much to bear.

Then, just when it seemed he might have a lifetime membership in the "Best Players Never To Win A Major" club, Rose won a duel with Phil Mickelson at the venerable club outside Philadelphia, clinching the title with a 4-iron into the demanding 18th hole that gave him the par he needed to hold off Lefty.

"I haven't been one of those guys who said, 'OK, well, I'm going to win X amount of majors in my career,'" Rose said. "I really want to treat this major that I've won now as a gift and let it give me the ability to sort of free-wheel for the rest of my career — play free, play loose, just go after it. I've really got no pressure on me from that perspective anymore."

Not surprisingly, the U.S. Golf Association paired Rose and Mickelson in the first two rounds.

Both hope they'll still be playing together in the final group on Sunday.

"I enjoy playing golf with Phil," Rose said. "I enjoy the spirit in which he plays the games, how free he is out there. He's got a great temperament for the game. Nothing seems to faze him. That's something a lot of players can look up to him for."

Curtis Strange, the last player to win consecutive Opens in 1988 and '89, is pulling for Rose to join the exclusive club.

"If Justin would happen to do it this year, that would be the first phone call," Strange said. "That would be fantastic."

Rose missed the cut in his last tournament, the Memorial, though he thinks that might turn out to be a good break because it gave him more time to get familiar with Pinehurst.

Before that stumble, he had ripped off three straight top-10 finishes on the PGA Tour, including a tie for fourth against a loaded field at The Players Championship.

His biggest challenge this week might be keeping his mind on golf.

During the 2010 World Cup, Rose held a three-shot lead going to the final round of the Travelers Championship. That morning, he watched England's title hopes fade away with a 4-1 loss to Germany. Then he went out and shot a 75, finishing three shots behind winner Bubba Watson.

"I never really calmed down," Rose recalled. "So maybe I'll be a little bit more careful about my emotions watching the football."

After all, he's probably England's best hope for a championship.

___

Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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