Robert Rock goes from selling Mars bars to taming Tiger Woods
Robert Rock will now be known as the unlikely Englishman who put Tiger Woods on the canvas and, because of that, the crowd's rendition of the theme tune to Rocky when he tapped in was entirely justified.
So much for the eye of the Tiger; so much for his legendary status as the great converter of third-round leads. For just the ninth time in 62 tournaments, Woods could not turn the lead, or a share of the lead, after 54 holes into a title. And so the waiting continues for his first official victory since that scandal broke more than two years ago.
It was difficult not to concentrate on the plight of Woods, as the form of his first three days became a desert desertee and as the question mark still hovered above that famous red shirt. But in Rock, there is a modern fairy tale to capture any imagination. What was he known for before this win?
"Not much," he replied. This genuinely will be a life-changing moment for the laid-back midlander, who shoots up the Ryder Cup points list to sixth and into the world's top 60.
He has vowed to remain visor-free, regardless of any sponsors opportunities, and in the interests of individuality on these fairways we can hope he stands by the pledge. Yet if he does not, do not castigate. Rock is one of the game's dreamers, a poor man's Ian Poulter, who under a decade ago was working at a driving range, "selling Mars bars, watching Tiger win majors" and hoping to play a couple of European Tour events inhis career. With two wins in 272 Tour events, it obviously has not been the shortest journey from Lichfield to wonderland; but the awe in his gaze showed it has been worth it.
"I really can't believe I've done that today," he said, after beating Rory McIlroy by a stroke. "I thought this would be beyond me. My first win last year [at the Italian Open] was special, but this is different. It's a big tournament, a great field and just to play with Tiger today was a honour itself. It's something I'll never forget. Who knows, this could be the biggest thing ever to happen to me."
He was nervous on that first tee; of course he was. "I was struggling because I was going to play with Tiger Woods, it was my first time, and it was a going to be a big deal," said Rock. Somehow he managed to make contact with his driver and managed to match Woods's early back-to-back birdies. On the second, Woods lifted his arm when a 50-footer for birdie fell. Rock followed him in from four feet and then matched his three on the next as well.
"I needed that to keep pace with him," said Rock. "And then he dropped a couple which gave me a bit of space."
The Woods of yore would never have hit "the two bad shots, followed by the two bad pitches" on the fourth and fifth. Just as he would never have hit two fairways all day and only five greens in regulation. Afterwards, Woods talked about "hitting the ball beautifully all week", and of being "very pleased". His expression hinted at a contrasting emotion – frustration. He couldn't get it done.
Woods did claw Rock's lead back to one when the pacesetter bogeyed the 13th and, with a pack including the likes of the eventual runner-up McIlroy in pursuit, Rock's nerve was put under severe scrutiny. But in nature as in his name, he birdied the 14th from the fairway bunker and after that the 16th. "They're two of the hardest holes on the course today," said an impressed McIlroy.
There were tense moments when Rock hit to water's edge on the par-five 18th, but he had a two-shot cushion by then and was able to take a drop and play for a bogey up the fairway. A three-putt was still a possibility, however. Even though he claimed he did not know how hard he was hitting, it rolled to within a few inches of the hole. With a two-under-par 70, he had beaten Woods, on the final round by two shots and as the leaderboard showed Thomas Bjorn and Graeme McDowell alongside Woods in third, his success only looked better and better on examination. Naturally, there will be those who insist McIlroy would have won but for the two-shot penalty he incurred when careless clearing away the sand in front of his ball. But McIlroy wasn't about to go in for some self-flagellation. "They've nicknamed me Basil Brush and it did cost me in the end but it's still not a bad way to start the season," said McIlroy who also came second here last year. "I'm not going to lose any sleep."
Will Woods? He would not be the competitor he once was if he did not. Perhaps he will recall the instant on the 10th tee. Two marshals were making a clatter with their spikes on the concrete and when about to drive, Rock heard the noise again. "I assumed it was the same guys and shouted out 'Stand still!'" said Rock. "But then I looked up and realised it was Tiger walking up to the tee. He laughed and stood still, but I shouldn't have done it."
So Rock left Woods standing. He left them all standing. Sylvester Stallone should know there's still life left in the old script yet.
275 R Rock (Eng)
276 R McIlroy (NIrl)
277 T Bjorn (Den), G McDowell (NIrl), T Woods (US)
278 G Coetzee (SA), M Manassero (It)
279 K Horne (SA), P Lawrie (Sco), F Molinari (It), T Olesen (Den)