In this week’s Player Blog presented by Enterprise Rent-A-Car, Robert Rock reflects on the ten years since his memorable Abu Dhabi victory, coaching on Tour, and his plans for his future – including his Junior Golf Tour.
To be playing this week in Abu Dhabi at the same tournament ten years after winning is really special. There’s been numerous times over the past ten years where my game has dipped and there’s every chance I could not be playing anymore, so to be able to be here means I’m still playing alright, and that’s one thing I’m very happy about. I’m coming into this week with a lot of good memories, and I’m actually staying at the Westin and have been practicing there which has been great. They made me an honorary member just a few weeks ago which I never expected, and was a lovely touch because they didn’t have to.
I can’t top that week no matter what I do, and it was such a good day it’s hard not to think about this week - especially when you’re at the same tournament. Everything aligned so nicely that week for me to be able to play with Tiger, and I didn’t really expect to win. I hadn’t had any decent results in Abu Dhabi before, but I’d played well the week before in Fancourt and knew I had Dubai and Qatar afterwards, so I was just trying to have a relaxed week. I didn’t practice, didn’t play the pro-am, and just wanted to give myself a chance of making the cut. Then after two steady days I shot 66 on Saturday which got me into the final group, and sometimes I still think about that. Just one good round set up that whole life memory for me.
For someone in my position, who has never threatened to be top of the world rankings and would never play much against someone who is in the top ten of the world rankings, there was nothing to suggest that that was what I was capable of. I was just happy to play with him and watch him do his thing. To play OK myself and then win was amazing. And if that victory, and 20 years has proved anything to me, it’s that you never know really when your best golf is going to come out, or when a couple of shots might come and save a round. Every round, every day and every year is different, so you have to play each one with an open mind.
The nice thing to be able to say is that Tiger was lovely to play with, because it adds to the memory and makes it much better. That day could have been less memorable if he hadn’t spoken to me at all, and in truth he probably would have beaten me if he hadn’t. We spoke the day before, chatted little bits during the round which I wasn’t expecting and it put me at ease because he didn’t need to do that. On the rare occasion we’ve crossed paths since we’ve chatted and said hello and it’s nice. Tiger is up there for me as someone who I have always admired, someone I used to watch doing amazing things on reruns when I was a club pro opening the shop up at 6am. When you’re a pro often you can look at guys higher up in the rankings and see where the difference is, but that’s not the case with Tiger. What you’ve seen him do, I can’t do, and that’s why everyone holds him so highly. He’s made every golfer’s life better, from income to coaching, all the way down, and I’m grateful I got to play with him.
I’m thankful looking back on that time, and I’m happy to be here playing in Abu Dhabi, because this will probably be the last year that I play somewhat near a full schedule on Tour. This season, I’ve got four tournaments left in the category I’m in, and otherwise I’ll go back to category 16. Even if these four events improve my ranking a little bit this is probably going to be my last year of playing a huge amount of events anyway, so it probably won’t make that much difference. I’m more than content with that. I’ve done over 20 years, I’ve got some really nice memories, I’ve tried hard so I’ve got no regrets – other than my putting – and I’m happy with the effort I’ve put in.
This year, I’m not expecting anything at all, but I would love to come away feeling like I’ve made some progress with putting, purely because it’s been a lifelong challenge of mine. All last year I seemed to be on the cut line because I was missing one or two putts, and that has worn a little old over the years. In Valderrama I felt like I should have won, and after playing probably the best 15 holes I’ve ever played in a final round, I came away thinking my putting has done me in again. It’s a part of the game I’ve practiced a lot over 20 years and I’ve never found anything where I’ve felt really in control of what I’m doing. It’s not that I expect to hole loads, but I do expect to be able to hit decent putts on a line that I pick, and I just feel like I’ve constantly let myself down with it. After Valderrama I actually went to Portugal with a couple of different putters to try something different but after half an hour I realised that wasn’t the answer either so I just went out and played with the normal putter and played the same average game. So if I could end this season feeling like I’ve been consistently better on the greens, I’d be happy. And it would help my coaching too, because it would make me feel like I could demonstrate things a bit better on the greens.
Other than that, I just want to enjoy where I go and what I do rather than chase a ranking, because it might be my last time going to a lot of places I’ve been to. It can be a sad feeling when you realise you’re probably not going to get to do this again, so I definitely want to enjoy taking it in. I have this week and I’m first reserve for next week in Dubai so I’ll be excited about that, but I’ve already felt like I’ve had those moments elsewhere. Last year at Wentworth I felt like it was my last time playing there, and I had a moment on the Swilken Bridge in St. Andrews a few years ago too where it crossed my mind. I needed a birdie to keep my card, and I walked over the bridge thinking this may be for the last time. I thought you’ve got to play here a lot in the Dunhill and in the Open twice and you’ve enjoyed it. I ended up hitting a wedge close and tapped in to keep my card, but it was nice to be grateful in that moment. I’d love to get in one more Open there, but I’ve got to play better.
I played my 450th event in Portugal. To reach that milestone is something I’m really pleased with, because when I look back now, the idea achieving something like that was the furthest thing from my mind when I started as local club pro. Twenty years ago every PGA region would have their Order or Merit and the winner would get invited to Tour events in that area, and all I was trying to do was get into the events at the Belfry, Forest of Arden and Wentworth to see if I could make a cut and a little bit of money. The first year I missed both cuts at the events I played in, but not by much, so my plan for the following year was to do it again and be better. That next year I got four starts, which I turned into five or six, and earned 100,000 euros and my card for the next season. I remember playing with Mark Roe and he said to me ‘you need to do this for a living’, but before that I hadn’t even been thinking about that, or about travelling at all.
To make it to the Tour is hard, and with the way the game has developed I don’t think you’ll ever see a club pro do it again, so I’m grateful I was able to. Making that transition from club pro to the Tour was a real eye opener, and I lost my card the first year because I just wasn’t prepared for it. Places like the Challenge Tour are the best way to learn how to do this job. Now, the same avenue for starts I had isn’t there anymore, and courses are a lot harder, so it’s just too difficult to go from playing one round events to pinning your hopes on playing in one four round tournament – which is what you might get now.
Looking back, it’s not just what I have done as a professional, but also coaching that I’m proud of. It was something I only initially looked at because I thought it was my easiest choice of having a job in golf. I was a five handicap when I was 15 or 16, so being a club pro was a realistic option if I did the PGA training, and coaching seemed like a good way of earning a decent living. I found I enjoyed it, and when I was studying it myself to make my own golf better I realised I could hand out tips that might work for others. I’ve been out here long enough now that some of these guys want me onboard sometimes, and I really like having that mix of both being a player and being a coach to pros out here. You see the best people at their specialist subject, and it’s a privilege to be able to do it.
I’ve never found switching between the two mindsets of coach and player very difficult, and I think my time as a club pro really helped me transition to coaching out here. When you’re a club pro and a coach you might be teaching in the morning and playing in the afternoon without the benefit of much time in between, so you’ve got to be able to teach four or five people and tell them all sorts of stuff, but then be able to switch to your game without bringing over ideas you’ve just taught them. I gave Alejandro Cañizares a lesson this morning on the range, and I didn’t think about it once when I practiced - it’s gone almost the second I’ve walked away from him. It’s harder if you are paired with a player you work with, and sometimes I watch and sometimes I don’t, but I’ll always put those thoughts to the back of my mind when it comes to my own shots. I have so many swing thoughts going on in my own game, and they are always there so as soon as I get over the ball my swing thoughts take over and I’ve got a set order I think through. It keeps me focused, because if I was blank and playing more as a feel player there would be room for those other thoughts to come in.
I’ve always had that coach mentality present throughout my career, and that desire to understand how to play certain shots I was aware my colleagues could do that I couldn’t. I’ve always felt that I can’t teach someone how to do something if I can’t demonstrate it, and I’ve definitely learnt a lot from players I’ve coached. Putting is something I’m always learning and watching, and thankfully I work with some really good putters like Alejandro, James Morrison and Jamie Donaldson. I’ve also worked with Thomas Bjørn who is amazing at pitching and chipping and he’s helped me no end, sometimes it’s by talking or physically showing me, but I’ve also learnt a lot just by watching. When you’re working with them rather than trying to watch from afar, it’s a lot easier to work out what players are thinking when they play these shots. When I went with Thomas to the PGA Championship a few years ago, he and Phil Mickelson had a chat about chipping and pitching, and just getting to listen was pretty cool. Those little bits, I can’t afford not to listen to. I can then take it all in, and I’ll give it a try and a good go but even some of it doesn’t work for me personally, I can still use it to hand out to other players. It may not work for me but if I understand it and I’ve seen it work for someone else it’s easy to suggest it to try it, or suggest that to watch another player.
Obviously that constant searching probably led me down some paths I maybe could have avoided, and I maybe could have done less of that for my own game after my win in Abu Dhabi. But as ridiculous as it was to think now, I wasn’t content, so I would ask fellow pros to try and help me if I couldn’t get it right. You always think if you keep adding to your game you’ll get better, but sometimes you end up sacrificing spending time on the things you were really good at before. It’s a fine balance, and it’s led to two things. Now I can do a lot of the things I was trying to do back then, and while I’m probably not as good a player because of it, I’m probably a better coach to others.
I think it’s also easier to be a better coach now, thanks to technology. Over the past 20 years on Tour a lot of things have changed with technology, especially the types of golfer we have out here, but I also think coaching has seen a big change too.
When I started to learn my own swing it would be camcorders, a TV set up somewhere, a DVD player, and just a loads of faffing around to get to the actual nitty gritty of what I wanted to see. And even then it might not have recorded well enough and left me guessing, so I know I wasted loads of time. Or I might have been trying to learn from still pictures in a magazine. Now we have crystal clear slo-motion of anything you want to see, which you can compare to someone else in a similar quality in seconds. And a launch monitor can now help with things you can’t see on camera, to tell you the bits you might have been guessing like launch angle, or swing path. That guesswork is gone, so it’s made it way better for coaches to coach everyone from Tour pros to juniors. And it’s all at your fingertips in a matter of seconds.
But with everything I’ve done as a pro and as a coach, I can honestly say the Robert Rock Junior Golf Tour has been the best thing I’ve done. And the best thing I’ve done with it is let Natalie (Clarke) run it. She’s also a pro, and at the start she was the one who came to me with the idea of simply hosting a junior Open. In truth at the time I loved the idea but wasn’t sure I’d have time, but we did once, it went really well and the parents asked us to do more.
I’m really proud of how it’s developed since it began in 2016. I wanted to create something for driving range kids who would go to a junior coaching every Saturday, but wouldn’t actually play much on the course or get a handicap, and never progressed into actually playing golf. We started with a nine-hole version that was open to anyone without needing to join a club, where you could play with kids of a similar level. It moved kids from driving ranges on to the course, and it led to this mini Tour we created, and then all of a sudden these kids were moving up through age groups, and would either join a club or we’d give them a rough handicap. Now, we’ve got everything from under sixes all the way to under 21s, and for the last few years we’ve had 20-25 tournaments all around the UK on some brilliant courses. And the best part about having Natalie run it is that we’ve got about 40 girls. She’s a coach, running a mini tour and a golf pro, so they can see there are jobs in golf for them if they get good at it, and that’s been a real positive of the whole thing. Loads of clubs have been really welcoming to it too, and last year we got our new home at The Belfry, which has been absolutely awesome.
The support I’ve had with putting it all together has been amazing too. From sponsors like Dream Beds, Inert Recycling, Trendy Golf, Callaway, Ping and Titleist, and a couple of the pros agreeing to host and sponsor some days. Pablo Larrazábal is helping us host in LaManga in a couple of weeks, Danny Willett is doing the British Masters, Phil Kenyon and Mike from Visio Golf are sponsoring one at Hillside, and then I’ve had Eddie Pepperell, Marcus Armitage, Georgia Hall, Richie Ramsay and Stephen Gallacher all agree to help. It’s amazing for the kids to have these names associated with junior golf, and it means a lot. Having the support of the lads helping me out has been a big part of its success. I don’t have big grand plans as such for the future, but truthfully, I just want to keep it going for as long as I can.