DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES l Who would have thought that the person most qualified to pass judgment on who is the better player between Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy is a 34-year-old former driving range professional from the English Midlands. The former Swingers pro (insert your own Tiger gag here) is Robert Rock, Europe’s latest superstar with hair so perfect he doesn’t want a hat contract.
Rock has had quite an education these past three weeks. First, he got up close and personal with Woods in the final group of the Abu Dhabi Championship – and beat him to win the tournament. Then, his new VIP status saw him paired with McIlroy for the first two rounds of the Dubai Desert Classic.
So, which player is the best? The sorcerer or the apprentice?
“Ah, you can’t ask me that,” Rock said with a laugh. “That’s not fair.” He took a diplomatic pause for thought. “I am sure we are going to see some interesting battles between the two this year. Both are just brilliant in every department,” he said. “Rory was fantastic. From the ninth onwards on Thursday he played perfect golf,” Rock said after witnessing McIlroy’s 66 then bogey-free 65. “I feel lucky to have been up close to watch it. Makes the game look simple, especially off the tee. He is probably the best driver of a ball I’ve seen. He made my 67 look average.”
Rock took nine years to get on a roll. He won his first tournament last year at the Italian Open, but holding off Woods and McIlroy in Abu Dhabi prompted the “Rocky” and “Rock Star” headlines and transformed his life. Rock told a tale of how he was so poor in the late 1990s that he used to share low-budget guesthouse rooms with three colleagues while playing around the UK in assistant professional championships. Last week in Dubai, he signed a two-year contract to represent Abu Dhabi’s six-star Emirates Palace Hotel (five stars clearly just doesn’t cut it, these days).
Yet, Rock is a solid, down-to-earth, normal, approachable guy. His Rock star status has not brought on Rock star demands and tantrums. He’s still in touch with the real world. Indeed, two days after his head-spinning victory in Abu Dhabi, he was tidying the teaching room at his driving range. Then Rock’s journey to Dubai was quite a way short of the jet-setting lifestyle enjoyed by the vanquished Woods. Rock set off to drive four hours to Heathrow Airport but got stuck in a snowstorm that brought traffic to a standstill on the M25 motorway that encircles London. The four-hour journey took 12 hours; he slept in his car for four of them while kids built snowmen on the road.
Beating Tiger has opened up a new world to the likeable Englishman. He has propelled himself into just outside the world’s top 50, which earns him invites to the World Golf Championships and all the majors except The Masters. He is still dining out as The Man Who Beat Tiger.
“It felt like I should be watching him on TV doing his fist pump thing and running across the green. But, obviously, I was right there playing with him,” Rock said. “He was an absolute gent to play with. I assumed it might be a little more difficult. He could definitely make it more difficult if he chose to. If he wasn’t as polite.”
Rock is also The Man With No Hat. And he plans to keep it that way even though offers have been on the table. He said he’d turn down $1 million. “I’m waiting for the hair deal,” he said with a laugh. Presumably, because he thinks he’s worth it. Clinging on to a semblance of his old world is clearly important for Rock.
“As much as I love what I do, and give it 100 percent, at the same time I would still like to be able to do normal stuff,” Rock said. “It’s quite nice to go to the bar after you’ve been playing and just chill out with a few beers.” Rock is raising the bar with his goals, too. “It has made me realize tournaments are not going to get much more difficult than that (Abu Dhabi). Unless it’s a major and playing with Tiger again. At least I have taught myself I can play well under those circumstances.” Rock finished well down the field at 3-under par in Dubai, probably still suffering from an Abu Dhabi hangover.
All this new attention will understandably take time to get used to. Rock is a relaxed enough fellow to enjoy the ride but he admitted it still feels like an out-of-body experience. “It feels weird sometimes playing in front of so many people,” he said. “I understand people want to watch Tiger Woods but I sometimes feel like a little bit of a sideshow.”
Not anymore he isn’t. Welcome to the Big Leagues. Next stop on his world tour is the WGC-Accenture Match Play Championship in Tucson, Arizona next week. A Rock Star is born.