At the recent Dunhill Links the DP World Tour said goodbye to one of its most unlikely, and certainly one of its most unique stars, as Robert Rock signed off with a closing birdie.
It would be at his favourite course on the planet, the Old Course at St Andrews, but unlike Jack and Arnie and the Swilken Bridge, it would be on the other side of the course at the 9th. There would be grand statements and no fanfare, just the way he’d probably like it. There's half a chance that he might tee it up in Portugal in a couple of weeks but then that will be that.
Rock’s like might never be seen again; a PGA Midlands pro who had managed to get a start at The Belfry through the regional order of merit in 2002. He had previously played in one Challenge Tour event in 1999, which had gone ‘horrendously’, and now he had a seven-month wait to tee it up on the European Tour for the first time.
He came to his 36th hole, the 9th on the Brabazon, needing a par to make the cut with a wedge in his hand.
“All I had to do was carry the front bunker and avoid the water and two-putt it. Instead I mishit it, a bit squeezy and thin, and it buried in the face of the bunker. I wasn’t very good at bunkers so I got it out to 35 feet and three-putt it. After months and months of preparation, and 35 holes of hard graft, I thinned a wedge and that was that,” Rock says of his closing double-bogey.
The following year he was back at The Belfry but this time he would make the cut and, three starts later, he tied for 4th at the Forest of Arden.
“I just wanted to get a couple of tour starts. I couldn’t see myself doing it through the school and it never even entered my head to do it through the Challenge Tour so my main option was to do well at regional level, get a couple of starts and see where that took me.
“Going into 2003 my biggest cheque was about £5,000, within two months I had won over £120k. That was unheard of. After the Forest of Arden I remember paying my mortgage off at the time. In 2002 I didn’t pay my affiliate entry fee, the following year I qualified for Wentworth as well and I was told that I might get into some other events. I didn't have the £2,500 entry fee but Paul Casey gave me some good advice to do it. I really just wanted to do it to see myself on the money list and, even if I finished 200th, at least there would be a record of me playing a little bit on the European Tour."
Fast forward to today and there are 465 starts next to Rock’s name.
In the past 20 years Rock has done things his own way which has been a very welcome distraction to the automaton nature of the modern tour pro. While the majority of tour pros will shoehorn various sponsors across themselves Rock has kept things simple. There haven’t been many equipment deals over the years and most of them have ended with a few regrets as he’s stuck with a policy of playing the clubs that best suit his game and a Titleist ProV1 ball that will always be in his bag. In an unpredictable game he likes his constants which makes it easier to decipher whether it is pilot or equipment error.
The swing is a thing of beauty and something that was picked apart and put together again in his early days on tour. One lightbulb moment came about after spending some time with Mac O’Grady, otherwise it’s based on an exhaustive knowledge and interest in how the body moves with a club in hand. His favourite swingers would still likely be Sam Snead and Ben Hogan and his teenage years were spent mimicking the likes of Faldo, Woosnam, Price, Seve, Couples, Norman and Crenshaw.
As for his lack of a baseball cap and THAT hairdo his outlook is equally as straightforward.
“I get asked about the lack of a baseball cap all the time. It's pretty simple, I wore one as part of a deal with one manufacturer and hated it and a hat deal has never interested me since. I like being self-employed and to not be told what I should be wearing every day. The other reason is I’ve got a big shaped head and they don’t tend to fit or suit me. My hair’s thick so it would be like wearing a woolly hat. I get the visor, I’ll occasionally wear a flat cap and I even get a straw hat but baseball caps have never made sense.”
As for the biggest no-no in the game and golfing fashion's most heinous crime, the white belt, Rock has always been way ahead of the curve.
“Your white belt that should be permanently attached to your white trousers, at the back of the wardrobe, and the trousers should only come out if it’s roasting hot. I'm not sure that either item of clothing should ever have been invented. You would never wear white trousers out of the house, imagine going for a meal with your other half and wearing some white trousers. I’m not sure there should even be golf trousers, just trousers.”
For all the talk of the swing and the style Sunday January 29, 2012 will always be the date that Rock will be best remembered for. In Abu Dhabi Rock went off in the joint lead with the player he had watched from the pro shop when he was an assistant pro on £200 a week – Tiger Woods. To that point Rock had only played in six majors, Tiger had won 14 of them.
“It wasn’t about trying to win, if it was anyone else I would just be thinking about that, the bottom line was that I wanted to enjoy it just for my own pride. And I just wanted to play OK and not tell the story that I panicked and shot loads and thankfully I didn’t.
“I had six months where my iron play was really good for me. My chipping and putting weren't great but I was hitting it close enough to score well so Abu Dhabi came at the right time. I enjoyed all of it right down until the 72nd hole when I realised that I could mess it up – then I thought that I could win and it started to fall apart. Another hole and it would have been interesting and, by the end, I actually had to ask Peter Hanson whether I had won or not.”
A huge part of Rock’s charm is his ability to be normal in a not very normal world. For a few years in a different lifetime I would ghost write his column in a magazine and there was never any need for any managers to get in the way. He would always try hard with it, never wanted anything in return and he would often ring to say thanks for how it turned out.
More recently I managed to persuade him to share some of his stories on Instagram for no other reason than people would find them interesting. The only proviso was that he didn't want to come across as self-promoting.
Like many others I’ll miss forever scrolling up and down a leaderboard for a peek of his name and the little knot of excitement when he goes on a bit of a birdie blitz and, conversely, I’ll always cherish when he gave me a shot-by-shot breakdown of his closing 10 in India which remains some of the funniest minutes of my life.
In more recent times Rock has helped turn around the careers of many of his peers, including Lee Westwood and Matt Wallace. Wallace first started working with Rock in the middle of 2017 and it kickstarted a run that nearly got him into Europe's Ryder Cup team in Paris the following year.
"I would see Rocky coaching some people each week on tour. I didn’t know him from Adam and I went up to him in Ireland and introduced myself and asked if he wouldn’t mind having a look at my swing," explains Wallace.
"That was the Wednesday, I played Thursday and he asked how it went. I said it wasn’t great so he said he’d see me on the practice ground at 7am the next day and he wasn’t off until the afternoon. I thought that’s pretty cool, we did some stuff and I started birdie-birdie the next morning but still missed the cut. But I knew from that moment that everything was going to be pretty good."
In the years to come Rock’s legacy may well turn out to be away from his playing and coaching exploits and rather his junior tour which he set out to create something for kids who aren’t club golfers.
“I think it’s part of your job as a golf pro to do it. Maybe it’s part of coming from a PGA pro background, someone took you on at some point and you became an assistant. When you become qualified you feel a duty to pass things on.
"I’m inspired by people like Paul Lawrie and Stevie Gallacher, the amount of work they do is incredible and I’d feel that I wasn’t doing a proper job if I didn’t attempt to do something similar. Lawrie is your model golf pro as far as I can see, he does what he can and more."
Mark has worked in golf for over 20 years having started off his journalistic life at the Press Association and BBC Sport before moving to Sky Sports where he became their golf editor on skysports.com. He then worked at National Club Golfer and Lady Golfer where he was the deputy editor and he has interviewed many of the leading names in the game, both male and female, ghosted columns for the likes of Robert Rock, Charley Hull and Dame Laura Davies, as well as playing the vast majority of our Top 100 GB&I courses. He loves links golf with a particular love of Royal Dornoch and Kingsbarns. He is now a freelance, also working for the PGA and Robert Rock. Loves tour golf, both men and women and he remains the long-standing owner of an horrific short game. He plays at Moortown with a handicap of 6.
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