by Jeff Skinner
As Robert Rock stood on the eighteenth tee at The Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship he had earned a two stroke lead over Rory McIlroy and three over Tiger Woods. Rock had played steady golf and looked to be as solid as his last name. He had five birdies to go with only two bogeys for the day and had reached 14 under par and gained his cushion going into the last.
But a poor driver off the eighteenth tee put him in the hazard with a difficult shot off the beach that rims the pond with his ball perilously close to a rock and a bush. Rock was biting his lip as his caddie convinced him to take a drop behind the hazard and play down the fairway from there. Rock should kick his caddie a little extra cash as the strategy worked and he beat the greatest player of his generation and claimed the biggest win of his professional life.
Rock knew when he teed off today that he had a huge task ahead of him. When Tiger Woods is in the final group players have a tendency to fold under the pressure. Woods had shown glimpses of his old form all week and Rock had never been in this position in such a big tournament.
Rock was certainly up to the task as he matched Woods with birdies at the second and third holes. But Woods wasn’t as solid off the tee as he needed and with consecutive bogeys at the next two holes Rock had the lead. Tiger had trouble finding the fairways today as he only hit a pair of them and that left him out of position all day. He couldn’t manage any birdies on the back nine when he needed to put the pressure on Rock and ended the day at even par and a tie for third.
Rock stumbled at bit with a bogey on the thirteenth which let Rory McIlroy back in the race but bounced back with birdies on fourteen and sixteen. That looked to give him the cushion he needed but the errant tee ball at eighteen caused Rock to scramble for the win.
After getting on the green in four shots he had two putts to win. As he lagged his first putt to 3 inches the first sign of a smile appeared on his lips. After Tiger tapped in for his par and Rock approached his final tap in both golfers shared a smile at each other as if Tiger was saying “good job” and Rock was saying “finally.”
This is Rock’s most impressive performance to date. He broke into the winners column at last year’s BMW Italian Open. Rock had to feel the pressure of being in the spotlight with a 14 time major winner and U.S. Open Champion Rory McIlroy breathing down his neck. But Rock performed like a champion and other than the misstep at the eighteenth played superb golf.
It wasn’t long ago that a day like today was just a dream for Rock. As a club professional near his hometown he would give lessons at The Swingers Golf Center in Litchfield and dream of playing on The European Tour. Rock recognizes the path he has travelled and remains humble and loyal to his original golfing roots. “I really can’t believe I have done that today.”
“I was just very happy to be playing with Tiger. That’s a special honor in itself.”
This may very well have been the best field of the year for the European Tour. With four of the top ten golfers in the world and Woods playing in the desert it is possible that only the Open Championship will boast as stronger field. But this day wasn’t one for the top ten golfers. It was a day for the 117th ranked golfer in the world to show his mettle and claim victory on the biggest day of his professional life. Robert Rock proved he can go face to face with the most intimidating golfer of this era and still come out smiling.