DUBAI, United Arab Emirates -- After beating Tiger Woods at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship last week, rising star Robert Rock says he no longer fears playing against the big names.
Good thing. He’s paired with U.S. Open champion Rory McIlroy and defending champion Alvaro Quiros of Spain in Thursday’s opening round of the Omega Dubai Desert Classic.
The 34-year-old Englishman, who cracked the top 100 with his Abu Dhabi win, has found celebrity life to his liking. He was mobbed by autograph seekers when playing a pro-am tournament Wednesday. He’s also picked up a lucrative endorsement, signing on as the golfing ambassador for the opulent Emirates Palace hotel in Abu Dhabi.
Plenty of people were still asking Rock about his shocking head-to-head win over 14-time major winner Woods. They came into the final round tied, but Rock held his nerve to win the tournament by a shot over McIlroy. Woods was another shot back in a tie for third.
“It doesn’t get much better than that for me,” Rock said Wednesday as he walked down the fairway of the first hole of the Emirates Course. “To make it better, it would need to be the same sort of scenario in a major championship.
“The chances of actually getting the pairings right for that are slim … I think I will have a chance to win other tournaments, but that one will definitely be a lasting memory.”
Rock, who won his first European Tour event last year, said the win against Woods had given him confidence and a sense he can compete with anyone.
“Certain occasions during my career, I’ve played with people that have really made me nervous and that was probably the most,” he said of Woods. “I played with Nick Faldo, who was a hero, and so was Seve (Ballesteros). After you do that, you are not scared of any groups you get. I’d love to play with him (Woods) again. He was great company.”
Rock dismissed critics who have suggested Woods can be rude on the golf course, after he was caught spitting on the green last year in Dubai. He said the former No. 1 repeatedly complimented him on his shots and put up with a packed gallery in Abu Dhabi that at times became a tad unruly.
“As far as golfing etiquette, it couldn’t be better. It’s a bit unfair when people criticize him,” he said. “There are a lot of distractions for him when he is playing, people talking, people using their phones, people taking pictures when they shouldn’t.
2012 OMEGA DUBAI DESERT CLASSIC
The Omega Dubai Desert Classic debuted in 1989 as the first event in what is now become the European Tour's Middle East Swing.
“That was frustrating for me when I was hitting shots. I lost my temper a few times when that happened and he doesn’t do that. He ignores it and just carries on.”
Rock, who until last month was better known for his relaxed demeanor and 1970s style haircut, said breaking into the top 50 would be a goal -- in time to get him an invitation to the Masters. But his first priority is to win in Dubai.
“I’m up against two great players in that group,” Rock said. “The whole field is full of potential winners. The European Tour is very, very strong. I think my victory in Abu Dhabi proved that to some extent, that somebody down the lower ends of the world rankings can win a tournament.”
McIlroy, who won here in 2009, is looking to overcome inconsistent driving and mistakes in Abu Dhabi. Among the most costly was a two-shot penalty in the second round for brushing away sand in front of his ball in the rough of the ninth hole.
“I didn’t feel like I played all that well in Abu Dhabi,” McIlroy said. “I scored very well and was able to get myself into contention, which was great. I felt like I needed to work on a couple of things last week, which I did, and I feel like they’re getting better.”
Third-ranked Lee Westwood is in the field, looking to improve on a slow start to the year. He finished tied for 17th in Abu Dhabi and tied for 12th at the Qatar Masters. Fourth-ranked Martin Kaymer is competing after finishing tied for ninth in Qatar and missing the cut in Abu Dhabi.