ABU DHABI, United Arab Emirates – Get ready for David versus Goliath, Rocky Balboa versus Apollo Creed, the rabbit taking on the hare.
Even if you tried, you couldn’t find two more disparate characters at the top of the Abu Dhabi leaderboard than Tiger Woods and Robert Rock. They’re tied on 11 under par, but that’s about the only thing they have in common.
Woods has won 14 majors and another 83 tournaments around the world. He has 71 PGA Tour victories alone. He’s earned $1 billion in earnings (and endorsements).
Rock, meanwhile, is the epitome of the journeyman professional. He’s just won one tournament of note, last year’s Italian Open. But even that was the result of a long, arduous road from oblivion.
It’s not that long ago the 34-year-old Englishman was teaching 18 handicappers how to fix their slices at Swingers Driving Range in Litchfield, England. Honest, “Swingers.”
You couldn’t make this stuff up.
Rock turned professional in 1998 but didn’t make it onto the European Tour until 2003. He qualified for the Benson & Hedges International Open and Volvo PGA Championship after nice performances in PGA professional events in the English Midlands. He managed to secure seven European Tour invites and got his card for 2004 through finishing 116th on the European money list.
From 2004 to 2007 Rock flirted on the fringes of the European Tour, a bottom-of-the-food-chain guy who came nowhere near the lions and tigers of Europe.
Rock’s breakthrough year came in 2008 when he managed to gain traction by finishing 111th on the European money list. In 2009 he placed second three times, including the Irish Open when he took first place money but missed out on the win when amateur Shane Lowry beat him in a playoff.
Rock finished 29th on the money list that year, and has been a top-60 player ever since. He’s earned just over 3.5 million euros, which is a fortune for a driving range guy. Needless to say, nothing in his resume pointed to him playing in the final group on Sunday against one Eldrick T. Woods.
Rock has only played in six majors – five Open Championships and last year’s U.S. Open. However, the Englishman did finish seventh in the 2010 Open and 23rd at Congressional last year.
Indeed, Rock was so unprepared for last year’s U.S. Open that he struggled to get a visa, turned up on Wednesday night and had to play Congressional without a practice round.
Woods might be gunning for his 98th win, but Rock is just looking forward to seeing what it’s like to play with greatness.
“I just want to experience it,” Rock said. “How many chances I’ll get to do that (play with Tiger) is not clear. I want to at least say I’ve done this once.”
Before his impending date with Woods, the biggest names the Englishman had played with were Nick Faldo, Seve Ballesteros and Vijay Singh when the Fijian was World No. 1. Abu Dhabi will be totally different. He only played a practice round with Seve, Faldo was past his prime and Singh clearly doesn’t have the same intimidation factor as Woods.
Asked if he would be trembling on the first tee beside Woods, Rock answered the question honestly. “Yes. And I’m not sure how much sleep I’ll get tonight either.”
And his hopes on the opening hole? “When I’ve made decent contact on the first hole, hopefully I’ll start playing the game properly.”
Abu Dhabi clearly doesn’t mean a lot in the grand scheme of things. To Woods it’s chance to kick the season off with a win and to gauge whether the swing changes he’s made with Sean Foley are in place for a run at this year’s majors.
For Rock it is his major championship, arguably the biggest stage he’ll ever play on.
There’s enough about the Englishman to suggest he might do well. Providing he makes solid contact on the opening hole, could this be Jack Fleck against Ben Hogan in the 1954 U.S. Open?
All those who took lessons from the man who honed his game at Swingers Driving Range will certainly be hoping so.