Robert Rock rolls back into town for Abu Dhabi Golf Championship

Timing is everything for Robert Rock, who took down Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy on the final day last year to win the Abu Dhabi Golf Championship, writes Ali Khaled.

Robert Rock enjoys playing golf in these parts. Champion at Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship at the start of 2012. Joint 21st at the Race to Dubai at the end of it. And now he is back to defend his title in the capital.

But not even he was prepared for the peculiarly local challenge he faced at the Emirates Palace hotel on Tuesday morning. On a crisp, windy day, the Englishman stood before a makeshift tee on the white sands of the hotel's beach, and looked to hit a floating green several hundred feet away in the Arabian Gulf waters.

The first swing, not helped by the wind, missed. The next was closer. A change of clubs, and he got closer and closer. He may not have hit that small target in the end, but when the real action begins in Abu Dhabi on Thursday, the champion is more than ready to tackle the unexpectedly gusty, even chilly, conditions.

"My preparation has been good," Rock said. "My form tends to be better at this time of year, so the middle to end of last year was a little bit average but I was prepared for that because that what my previous seasons have been like."

To say he was on form this time last year is an understatement. Going into the last round at the Abu Dhabi Golf Club last year, Rock was joint leader with Tiger Woods. He then shot a two-under 70 to leave the world No 1 Rory McIlroy one shot behind, in second, and Woods two behind, in third. He called it the best moment of his career.

Despite finishing a disappointing joint 51st at the Dubai Desert Classic two weeks later, 2012 still ended on a high note in Dubai.

"When we played the Dubai World Championship [in November], I played really well, I played pretty well last week, and I'm practicing well this week so I'm hopeful that this week will be as good as it was last year."

Despite missing that troublesome floating green, Rock, like many of his colleagues, increasingly considers the UAE golfing landscape to be close to ideal and, along with the Qatar Masters as part of the Desert Swing, its events as some of the most enjoyable parts of the European Tour.

The country's many golf courses, as well as its proximity to many event destinations in Africa and east Asia, as well as Europe, make it a convenient location for the golfers. Many look to make Dubai their home for six to eight months of the year, among them McIlroy and his Northern Ireland countryman Michael Hoey.

"It's such a good place for golf, the facilities are excellent, the weather's perfect, and with our schedule taking us all over the globe it's a great place to start from," Rock says of the UAE's position as a regional golf hub.

Rock believes the emergence of the Abu Dhabi and Dubai events have been beneficial to the players and the tour.

"They've really supported the European Tour well," the 35 year old said. "I think all the golfers feel really welcome here, and if you come and practice here you're also going to be playing a lot of tournaments, as well, so it's an ideal place to stay."

At the Race To Dubai, there may have been grumblings among some players at the decline of top-quality events in Europe, but it is not a view that the good-natured Rock shares. He seems happy to play wherever the schedule takes him.

"It depends what you're after: the European Tour has always been the focus for me and I think we have some excellent tournaments," he says. "Europe is struggling [economically] in these times. We used to have a lot of great tournaments there, but we need to go to places that are interested in golf, and so I don't think it really matters where we are. We're all happy to be here."

For now, all eyes are on Abu Dhabi. And no one has dominated the headlines in the past few days like the world's No 1 and 2. On Monday, McIlroy followed in the footsteps of Woods in signing a multimillion-dollar deal with Nike, to the backdrop of a frenzied media campaign by the sporting giants. Not many golf fans will be looking beyond those two for a potential winner on Sunday.

But then again, that was what everyone expected last year, and we all know what happened then. On his lucky course, Robert Rock may yet prove to have a few tricks up his sleeve.

"I'm up against a great field again," the reigning champion said. "But over the next few weeks I'll be playing top stuff again."

Moving greens, or not.

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