Last month Robert Rock opened his second teaching academy at Kings Hill GC near Maidstone, Kent. Glyn Pritchard went along to the opening and spoke to Rock about his journey from club assistant pro to going head to head with Tiger Woods down the stretch on Sunday afternoon.
After finishing ‘A’ levels in his home town of Lichfield in Staffordshire, Rock took a job as a trainee assistant pro at a local golf club. “I qualified and turned pro playing off scratch in 1998. I did all the normal jobs an assistant does in the shop but I really wanted to coach. The club took a cut of my fees, so to supplement my income I started playing in PGA assistants’ events. I won a bit of money, it wasn’t huge just £50 here or £100 there, but it gave me a taste for competition.”
Apart from his PGA training, Rock has had no formal coaching. “I’m self-taught so I didn’t know from a coach if I had the potential to compete on tour. I thought in my head that I could do it, I was beating guys in the PGA events, but I didn’t have a clue whether my game was up to tour standard – I didn’t know any tour players.”
Back then you could qualify for European Tour events played in the UK by winning the local PGA Order of Merit. “So that was my plan, to win the local Order of Merit, qualify and see if I had the game to play on tour. I qualified for two tour events in 2002 but missed the cut by one shot in each of them. I decided to try again the following year using that experience to know what to prepare for and what needed to be improved.”
Competing with tour players came as a shock. “I could drive the ball as well as anyone, but my iron play was only average. Where I got a surprise was the quality of scrambling and putting. You have to get it up and down and my short game was non-existent in comparison. I was outdriving guys, but they were beating me. It was a very sharp learning curve.”
The next year in his first tour event Rock finished 22nd with a double bogey on the last hole costing him places and cash. He then played in the Volvo PGA at Wentworth and finished in the top 25. “I found out that the £2,000 fee for affiliate membership of the European Tour counted towards your winnings on the Order of Merit. I didn’t have the two-grand, so I put it on my credit card in the belief I could make it.” Based on his performances, Chubby Chandler extended an invitation to play at the 2003 British Masters tour event at Forest of Arden. “I finished fourth and won enough to get my tour card for 2004 and have been on the tour ever since.”
Asked if his background as a club assistant pro, helped or hindered, Rock says, “I think it helped me, because it made me a little bit more battle-hardened than the guys who came up through the amateur ranks. When you’re competing and you know you MUST get a top place to pay your bills that month it toughens you up. I’ve never worked with a mind coach because those early years taught me to focus on grinding it out to get a cheque.”
Rock won his first European Tour title in 2011 at the BMW Italian Open in Turin. His second came in spectacular fashion a year later when he won the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship. Rock entered the final round at eleven under par, tied for the lead with Tiger Woods.
“At that stage I was just happy to be playing in the final pair with Tiger Woods. More than anything I didn’t want to be known as ‘the guy who shot 80’ in the final round with Tiger, so I wanted a good start. I think if he had cold-shouldered me on the first tee he might have had me beat. But fair-play, he was friendly and we chatted. It helped that we had met on the putting green the previous day. I knew his then coach Sean Foley so we actually spoke about swing mechanics, which broke the ice and I remember thinking, ‘he’s alright’.”
Rock shot a two-under round of 70 beating Woods and also beating Rory McIlroy into second place by one shot. The win earned him €347,024. “Winning that tournament wasn’t a major priority for Tiger but it’s a career highlight for me.”
At the time of writing Rock has won €143,750 playing in eight European Tour events so far this season and his total career tour prize earnings are nearly €5 million.
Regarding what advice he would give to any young assistant club pro hoping to emulate his career path, Rock says, “You have to be brutally honest with yourself and you have to put in the practice time. There are no short cuts. I know when you finish a day in the shop, you may just want to get home for dinner and put your feet up, but that’s the time you have to go to the range. If you don’t have that dedication, there’s no point in wasting money kidding yourself.”
New academy has Foresight
The new Robert Rock Academy at Kings Hill GC follows on from Rock’s first teaching academy at Darnford Moors GC in his home county of Staffordshire. Darnford Moors was the second club that Rock worked at, as a self-employed teaching pro when he started his career.
The new academy has all the latest equipment with ball flight analysis using both Trackman and Foresight GC2. The GC2 tracker is fitted with HMT (Head Measurement Technology) to precisely capture club head data. Critical data accurately measured includes club head speed, horizontal club path, smash factor, dynamic loft and lie and impact location – accurately. At the opening event Rock was trying out the new AeroBurner and R15 drivers from his equipment sponsor TaylorMade, with a view to replacing his current SLDR model. Commenting Rock said, “My stock shot is a fade, but I’m finding I can draw the ball more easily with the R15. Both give me an extra 15 yards so I can’t ignore that and stick with the SLDR, although it’s a good club.”
Also at the event was Oliver Wilson, whom Rock coached to his come-back victory at the 2014 Alfred Dunhill Links Championship. After a great start to his career, including making the 2008 Ryder Cup team, Wilson suffered a slump that saw him lose his tour card at the end of the 2011 season. “I took on Ollie’s former caddie Richard Hill and he used to tell me how Ollie was getting on and that’s how the relationship started. Outside of my own playing career, Ollie’s win at the Dunhill is a highlight for me as a coach.” Wilson’s first European Tour win earned him $800,000 and exempt status on the tour until the end of the 2016 season.
In addition to Wilson, Rock is coaching three women on the Ladies European Tour; Kelsey Macdonald, Charlotte Thompson and Amy Boulden who had a great first season on LET winning the 2014 ‘Rookie of the Year’ award. “I’ve always enjoyed coaching and it was what I wanted to do at the start.” Asked why he isn’t coaching more men, Rock responds, “I’m still on the tour myself so you’re conscious that you will be helping your competition!”
With the clubs and golf balls going so much further, Rock agrees professional tour golf is becoming a power hitters’ game. “When I started we were still using persimmon woods. Today the technology has advanced enormously and the drivers and the balls have changed out of all recognition.” Rock doesn’t believe placing limitations on the tour balls performance is feasible. “It’s too late for that. All they can do now is hold the line where it is – that’s as much as you can expect.”