Wednesday, February 08, 2012


These are wild, transformative times in the life of Robert Rock.
One moment, he is the perpetual itinerant from Staffordshire, toiling each year to keep his European Tour card. The next, he wins the season-opening Abu Dhabi Championship by eclipsing Tiger Woods — the man he had grown up idolising, and whose shirts he used to stock in his pro’s shop in Lichfield.
In the 10 days since his improbable triumph in the desert, the 34 year-old’s ‘Rock star’ billing has only been reinforced.
He returns to the Gulf this week, finding himself grouped with Rory McIlroy, the US Open champion, as a headline attraction in Thursday’s first round of the Dubai Desert Classic.
On Monday, he signed a two-year deal to represent the Emirates Palace, Abu Dhabi’s most luxurious hotel.
Once, the idea of linking the understated Rock with such a temple of opulence would have seemed fanciful. Courtesy of vanquishing Woods, though, he finds that his cachet has been multiplied overnight.
It is strange indeed to recall how, barely a fortnight ago, Rock was but a starstruck guest at the ‘six-star’ Emirates Palace, watching Woods conduct a corporate meet-and-greet.
“I did see him in one of the restaurants there one evening, when he was involved in an HSBC event. Jamie Donaldson and I were at a nearby table, but we couldn’t get too close. He had lots of officials around him.”
Such barriers have now been removed. Rock proved by his consummate win in Abu Dhabi, beating Woods by two shots as part of the final three-ball, that he could not simply hold his own in such company but prevail.
He gatecrashed an exclusive coterie — one that included Phil Mickelson, Padraig Harrington and Y E Yang — as one of just nine men who had fended off Woods when the former No 1 entered the closing round at least tied for the lead. So how did he manage it?
“A lot of players have found it very difficult playing with Tiger in those circumstances, and I can understand why,” Rock says. “I was fully expecting to be the next one. But I was just trying my best to hit a good first tee-shot. He’s the best golfer most of us will ever see.
"Although I beat him on that Sunday, he has beaten me every other time we have played in the same tournament together — beaten me by a long way. I was happy just to play with him. It was the highlight of my golfing career.”
Rock had almost forced his way into the final group on Sunday, making birdies at the 17th and 18th during his third round once he was aware of the opportunity to partner Woods.
The status gap between a relative tour journeyman, who had taken nine years to register his first win at last season’s Italian Open, and a 14-time major champion could easily have been overwhelming. But the experience did not disappoint.
“I didn’t know quite what to expect,” Rock admits. “He’s in the position where he could make things awkward for people he’s playing against. The fact that he’s so good brings its own pressures for anybody in his company.
"You desperately want to play well, and it can get in the way of how you have played to get alongside him in the first place. But we seemed to get on pretty well. He was quite complimentary.”
So much, then, for the sanctimony that spilt out after Woods spat on a green in Dubai at this time last year. In Rock’s estimation, he was the embodiment of good manners.
“All the way around, he remarked upon every decent shot I hit. It was ‘nice shot,' ‘good shot’ or ‘well done, Rob’. As far as golf etiquette goes, it was pretty good.”
There remains a refreshingly unaffected quality about Rock, who, in a piece of intriguing trivia, was also the first man since Holland’s Joost Luiten to win a tour event without wearing a cap.
The draining pressures of struggling to stay on the circuit somehow conditioned him to stay calm when, on the second hole on Sunday, Woods sank a 40-footer from the fringe to ratchet up the tension.
“I was quite happy to see it,” Rock shrugs. “I wanted him to play well, even though I was still unbelievably overawed. I tried just to switch off, enjoy the moment and watch him do his thing.
"And there were a lot of people around. What is so impressive is how he copes with all the added little noises: fans not wanting to watch him play a shot, but just to take a picture of him. I had to back off a lot of times.
"I don’t know how he manages to keep to the same routine every time. It affected me, but I thought, ‘Well, welcome to what he does every single day’.
“The atmosphere around Tiger is unique. I’ve never played in anything quite so raucous. I lost a play-off in Ireland a few years ago, when Shane Lowery beat me. Shane was the local young amateur at that point, and I was getting booed. But that was as tough as it got.”
Rock, suddenly, occupies a more rarefied plane. With three more strong finishes before April, he could elevate himself into the world’s top 50 and secure an exemption for the Masters.
“That’s something I wasn’t expecting,” he says, his bewilderment evident. From Lichfield’s Swingers Golf Centre to Augusta’s Magnolia Drive: now there is a journey he can measure in more than miles.



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