Like a Rolling Stone: The remarkable rise of Robert Rock

1/31/2012 8:09:18 AM
Two birds with one Rock: Robert Rock with the Falcon trophy in front of the famous clubhouse  (Getty Images)
Two birds with one Rock: Robert Rock with the Falcon trophy in front of the famous clubhouse (Getty Images)

Robert Rock’s superb victory at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship marked the pinnacle of an astonishing ascent through the golfing ranks, a journey that has seen the Englishman go from a complete unknown as a teaching professional to schooling Tiger down the stretch in the UAE.

“How does it feel?”

On the surface of it, the question posed to Robert Rock appeared the simplest of interrogatives. But having recently put the seal on what could possibly become the defining performance of his career, the Englishman was struggling to identify exactly just how he felt about the whole thing.

To the onlooker, however, the answer appeared abundantly clear, as clear as the burning blue skies under which the 34 year old had magnificently plotted his way to victory in the 2012 Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship.

Against a field of global superstars in residence at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club last week, Rock had produced what was surely some of the finest golf of his life to claim a sensational one shot triumph over US Open Champion Rory McIlroy and two ahead of Thomas Björn, Graeme McDowell and a certain 14-time Major Champion by the name of Tiger Woods.

To say that it was all a far cry from his humble beginnings as a teaching professional, based in the small city of Lichfield in Staffordshire, would be a considerable understatement, as Rock’s prolonged pause and thoughtful expression testified.

But there was one overriding emotion that Rock was exuding more prominently than any other, and it could be summed up in one word: disbelief.

Or perhaps disbelief and shock in equal measure, as he eventually attempted to put into words.

“It's pretty hard to believe that I managed to win today, I’m  very surprised,” said Rock in the winner’s press conference shortly after the conclusion of a trophy ceremony, staged to a backdrop of packed galleries and the imposing Falcon Clubhouse that looms over the 18th green.

“It doesn't get an awful lot harder than playing with Tiger Woods, so I guess barring a Major Championship, I know I can handle that again and that's nice to know. I was just determined to try and play the way I had been playing and hopefully without being too nervous, I could continue to hit some decent shots.
 
“But, he's such a good player that if he decides to play his very, very best, you're probably not going to beat him. I think it just didn't quite go his way [in the fourth round], and it was my day, thankfully for me.”

Rock turned professional in 1998 but worked as a teacher at Swingers Driving Range in Lichfield until 2002 before becoming an affiliate member of The European Tour in 2003; however, it was not until 2009 that he exhibited any signs of truly making a name for himself on the Tour.

Three top ten finishes in that year, including a play-off loss to then-amateur Shane Lowry at the Irish Open, heralded by far his most successful season as a professional to that point, finishing in the top 30 of the inaugural Race to Dubai, before capturing his maiden title at last year’s BMW Italian Open in his 209th start on The European Tour, taking the championship by one stroke over compatriot Gary Boyd and Danish rookie Thorbjørn Olesen.

A tied eighth-place finish at the season-ending Dubai World Championship presented by DP World in December preceded good performances on the African swing earlier in January and reflected a purple vein of form for Rock, but such success in the opening event of the Desert Swing was scarcely on his radar when travelling to Abu Dhabi.

“It hasn’t sunk in just yet,” he said, allowing an incredulous half-smile to break across his face. “I think give me a few days to contemplate on winning this.  It was such a good field and it's somewhere I've not really played well at before, so it's a surprise. But a lot of hard work [went into this win] so I’m very happy now.”

Rock also reflected frankly on the difficulties faced by club professionals vying to progress to the upper echelons of the game, and on the doubts he continually faced in the early portion of his career as to his own chances of succeeding at the top.

He said: “It seems a long, long way away when you are in that position.  And if you look at it as one big leap, it doesn't seem possible.

“But if you go along the right routes and have a plan for it, then it is doable.  It's not the easiest way to do it; working at golf clubs sort of seems like you would be playing golf a lot but you really don't.” 
 
And it seems that Rock has, on occasion, suffered with issues of confidence and belief in his own ability, and admitted to never having even fantasised about participating in such thrilling days such as last Sunday, and competing against such greats of the game as Woods.

“I was just playing local PGA events like all club pros do, and I was trying to do my best in those at the time really,” he reflected. “It was a slim chance to play my way onto some European Tour events through that route, and that was my goal while I was doing that. At that point, I was just thinking, ‘I hope I get to play a few European Tour events in my golf career.’  So there were no grand plans.”

One hopes now that the affable Rock, who demonstrated a steely determination on the championship’s climactic last day to bounce back from bogeys at the eighth and 13th holes with excellent birdies at the 14th and 16th, can gain some belief from knowing that he held off an in-form Woods down the stretch, as very few have managed to do in similar circumstances.

But there is still a great deal of the teacher left in Rock, who outed himself as a self-confessed golf swing geek in the press conference, evidenced by musings on Woods’ new action, on statistics and on his golf school, The Rob Rock Golf Academy, based at his former employer’s Midlands-based driving range.

He is a rare breed, a character that sometimes appears incongruent with the ever-growing world of corporate golf all around him, perhaps evinced by his reluctance to wear a hat – a much talked about trademark of Rock that led to Sir Nick Faldo tweeting, “I’d tip my hat to him if either of us wore one” after the sensational victory, and the friendly jibes about his neo-retro, manicured mop of hair, a mane that wouldn’t appear out of place on a member of a rock band taking to the stage.

It is also perhaps testimony to the humility of the man that he seems constantly surprised by any interest shown in him, but Rock is a likeable character, and the escalating support he received as the final round advanced reflected the fact.

Crowds love an underdog story, and it seemed oddly appropriate that sections of the galleries belted out the “Rocky” movie theme tune towards the conclusion of the tournament, as the week had been scripted with the apparent flair of a Hollywood screenwriter.
   
When asked on Saturday evening what it would mean to defeat Tiger the following day, Rock had replied: “Well it would be more than I ever expected to achieve”.

But achieve it he did, dispelling his own suggestion in the winner’s conference that “not much” was all he was known for on The European Tour before Sunday’s dramatic coup. 

“So how does it feel?”, the recurring chorus line of the famous Bob Dylan song also asks, but, unlike the song, as of Sunday 29th of January 2012, Rock is no longer a complete unknown, for the impressive victory was beamed to a significant audience across the globe, in part thanks to the status of the more-celebrated men he overcame.

Another Dylan refrain provides an apposite analogy of Rock’s augmented reputation after a performance that propelled him to a career-high of 55th in the Official World Golf Ranking: “The times they are achanging,” it says.

But for Robert Rock, a man who didn’t even dare to dream, the times have already changed, and changed inexorably.