No practice round, no yardage book and a bad back - Robert Rock qualifies for the US Open

No practice round, no yardage book and a bad back - Robert Rock qualifies for the US Open

11/06/2024

PGA Member, Robert Rock, qualified for his third appearance at the US Open, following an impressive 36 hole performance at Walton Heath. Rock, who in 2016 set up the Robert Rock Junior Tour, expressed his honest thoughts on preparation, qualification and the struggles he faced with a back injury.

Rock’s last start on the DP World Tour came in October 2022. In the meantime he’s played next-to-no competitive golf and a small amount of social golf. At the age of 47, and with a bad back that comes with hitting hundreds of thousands of balls, one of his main concerns was purely to make it round the 36 holes of US Open qualifying at Walton Heath. But he did make it round and the two-time tour winner fought off the aches and pains and a few nerves to book his place at Pinehurst No. 2.

Rock’s career has been a remarkable one, playing his way onto the main tour in just a handful of starts having spent much of his time working in a pro shop or playing in regional PGA events. He will be playing in his third US Open, his previous visits coming at Congressional in 2011 and the Olympic Club the following year.

What did your preparations consist of?

I played in a couple of one-day pro events at Whittington Heath but I did nothing there – I think that I shot one and two-under which I would have hoped for better around my home course. Last year I did Open qualifying, the British Par 3 (which he won) and just some one-day events on the European Players Tour. This year we got knocked out in the first round of the Sunningdale Foursomes so that was maybe a third of a round there. Otherwise it’s been a few nine-hole loops with friends and my son, Dave, who’s enjoying golf a bit more. But that’s just a game and a chat.

There is a club competition at Wentworth so I’m playing the West Course for a couple of days. I’ve taught there for the last year once a month and they asked if I’d like to join in the competition so that will be useful before Pinehurst.

Did you have a practice round at Walton Heath?

No, I drove down the night before, met up with my caddy and Rich Logue and we had a Chinese. It was more like a lads’ golf trip than the night before trying to qualify for the US Open. I borrowed some of my junior tour’s balls and, amazingly, I only used one. I was playing well and kept finding it so I thought that I’d stick with it.

How hopeful were you of having any chance of getting one of the nine spots?

I only just managed to sneak in through previous world-ranking points and I just thought why not. Walton Heath is a nice place to go and I wasn’t going to go to the States to do a regional qualifier. I just wanted to see what my game was actually like, more for future reference to see how much work I had to put in if I was going to consider maybe having a go and getting some status back for the seniors in a couple of years.

You got off to a quick start with four birdies on the front nine on the Old Course, what was working particularly well?

I think I one-putted every hole on the front nine which is a minor miracle. The greens were great and I holed a 10-footer for a par at the 1st, I chipped and putted at the next and I kept getting up and down. I bogeyed the par-3 11th which was fair enough and the only thing that I did badly was not being sharp enough at picking my clubs. I got the wind wrong a couple of times, I hit my best drive down the par-5 14th and I was between 3-wood and 2-iron and I sailed the green into an awful spot and made a bogey. I finished with a three-under 69 but I should have finished five or six-under and that bogey really derailed me and I thought that I had ruined things a bit. Had I managed a 66 I thought that I could maybe plot my way round, plus I didn’t know what my back would be like or whether I would just get tired.

You played with James Morrison – how key was that to your overall success on the day?

That was massive, I wouldn’t have got through if I wasn’t playing with James or somebody similar. We just had a laugh, he would take the mickey out of me when I out-drove him and joke to anyone watching and I just enjoyed playing with him. He shot five-under in the morning, so it also helped that he was playing well as I was just trying to keep up with him.

Talk us through your 66 in the afternoon?

A few things went my way and James was so helpful the last few holes as he could tell that I was getting anxious. I three-putted the 13th for a par and I thought that I needed a birdie to give me a bit of a cushion. I’ve played there a lot over the years but I was unsure of the line off the tee. I didn’t bother with a yardage book as it was an extra £80 and I wasn’t really thinking of qualifying and I had a laser but I couldn’t see where to aim. I should have hit an iron but, instead, I hit two terrible drives. Thankfully someone managed to find the first one which I chipped into a greenside bunker and then I holed that.

How do the nerves show themselves in your game?

I hesitate when I get on the tee. Then my pre-shot routine and set-up is not quite as smooth and the takeaway is a little bit quicker – and most of the time I pull it. At the 13th I pulled my approach and I thought here it comes which was a bit earlier than planned. I then had loads of practice swings to try and slow everything down which sort of worked as I was hitting mild pulls and I got away with a couple of them. At 17, I pulled the driver which ended on another tee, that left an easy wedge shot which I under-hit but I holed the putt. At the 18th I hit 3-wood, which I pulled but it finished in the rough, and I knocked it on to 12 feet. I got the feeling that I didn’t need to hole it – in truth I didn’t know how many places there were – but I was content with the score that I was on. It would have been typical of me to three-putt it so I thought just lag this one up and see where nine-under gets us.

Where did you think nine-under would get you?

Everyone was saying that I was in but there was still four hours of golf still to come and logic was telling me there were lots of good scores to come. Sky Sports asked me to do an interview and they seemed quite convinced. In the end I tied for fourth but it actually got quite close. It could easily have finished in a play-off and I wasn’t really ready for that as I’d had two pints by that stage!

A photo afterwards of your mixed bag of clubs got a lot of attention – how do you settle on your starting 14?

I’ve been practising with the Callaway Apex 4, 5 and 6-irons as well as the TaylorMade Tiger Woods blades so I’ve got those in the 6 to pitching wedge. I didn’t know which one to stick with and I went with the Tiger 6-iron and I’ll probably stay with that, though I’ve been using the Callaway over the winter as it’s easier.

What do you know of Pinehurst?

I remember watching Martin Kaymer win there in 2014, at the time I was coaching two girls who were playing the women’s US Open the week after. I’ve watched a bit since, and I assume it will be firmer fairways and less rough than normal. I don’t mind the sandy waste areas as we have a lot of that on tour and then I’ll need to do my homework around the greens and work out what sort of clubs I can hold the greens with and how I can avoid missing too many greens. I assume that I’ll like it as it’s such a ‘golfy’ area, in my head I’m picturing the feel of St Andrews or the Edinburgh coastal area but with nicer weather.

Who will be on your bag at Pinehurst?

A friend, Carl Baker, made the effort to come down to Walton Heath so he’s going to do it. I wouldn’t have got in if he hadn’t done that and pushed the trolley so it’s only fair that he comes. He’ll be fine, he used to be a professional footballer and is a good golfer despite being relatively new to the game, so he’ll work it out.

How is your back?

Average, if I swing it well it doesn’t hurt so that’s a huge incentive to actually focus on what I’m actually doing. When I make an iffy swing with the driver, that’s when it hurts. The good thing is I can’t get carried away with myself as I just can’t do it, I would have done in the past, now it starts aching after 100 balls. Now I think if I was to hit 300 balls over three days before going what difference is that going to make?

What would be a good finish?

I honestly don’t know how I could do, I’ve not done any short-game work on tournament greens but you never know. I’d like to think that I’ll be able to get it round in under-par, but you never know how they will set it up. I know that I’ll like the look of the course but I might be frustrated that I’ll be playing a US Open without the tournament experience behind me.

How cool is it that 36-hole qualifying events actually exist?

It’s really cool. I’ve timed it great to do this at Pinehurst, the big hope is that I can time my Open qualifying for another gig at St Andrews. I got really close last year but got the score slightly wrong to push on at the end and people passed me. It’s important that a tournament has a qualifying process like this so that players can make their way in – I didn’t give up playing because I wasn’t any good, I gave up as I couldn’t play a full schedule. I would have put more money on me getting through regional and final for The Open rather than this way. You just never know when you’re going to play well.

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