U.S. Open 2024: How a retired golf swing icon 'panicked' his way to an impressive opening round


David Cannon

PINEHURST, N.C. — "Best swing in the field right there."

The coach who said it pointed over at Robert Rock, a 47 year-old Englishman, who was striping 6-irons before his opening round at the U.S. Open.

A small group of other coaches, waiting for their own players to arrive, were huddled close, and watching intently. Multiple other top players paused to watch on their way past. When I wandered over to take a closer look, Benn Barham—who helps run Rock's golf academy—stepped back to film one.

"How good is that?" he said.

It's true, it is good. Very good. If you were to design a pretty golf swing in a lab, it'd probably come out looking like Robert Rock's. The club moves in neutral, clean lines; the middle of his body stays stable, and centered; his follow-through is perfectly balanced. It's become something of a throwback style in an era of swing-for-the-fences power, but there's no denying it: It looks great.

Rock's career-defining came in 2012, when Rock entered the final round of the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship tied for the lead with Tiger Woods, and shot a two-under 70 to win by one over Rory McIlroy. He did it all without wearing a hat, and with his aforementioned picturesque golf swing, he's been a cult figure ever since.

He retired in 2022 to run his teaching academy in England, but decided to attempt qualifying for this year's U.S. Open on a whim. He didn't even play a practice round before his Walton Heath, and hadn't played a competitive round in two years. But then, he started making putts. Rock shot 68-67, to qualify for Pinehurst outright.

"That's when I started to panic, knowing I had to deal with this in a few weeks," he said after his even par, opening round 70.

So how did Rock cram for the grueling test that is Pinehurst, so well?

Here's what he said.

1. Give yourself the right feedback in practice

Interestingly, Rock said he didn't play many rounds before Pinehurst—"just a couple of nine-hole loops," he said. Instead, he worked hard on his technique. A mat, a net, a video camera, and nothing else.

"I hit a lot of 6-irons, and a lot of drivers into a net," Rock said. "I wanted focus on getting my swing to get my swing into a place that looked familiar to when I was playing in tournaments."

Limiting his on-course time in some ways helped lower his expectations, and allowed him to focus his energy on what he could control: His technique.

2. Focus on something simple on the course

Knowing the heavy technical lifting on his golf swing was done, Rock gave himself something simple on the golf course to think about"

"I rush things at times. I rush my takeaway. My right arm tends to stay a bit too straight and tight if I'm nervous," he said. "I knew that almost every shot today, I had to breathe out and tell myself: Take it easy. Getting that rhythm of the few millimeters of the takeaway right, and then being patent at the top of my backswing. I did that on every shot today, which I was really pleased with."

It worked. Rock admitted he was "exhausted" after his first round, but it was a round he did himself proud. And one that maybe the rest of us can learn a little from.