Abstract Surface modification of gold nanorods (GNRs) is often problematic due to tightly packed cetyltrimethylammoniumbromide (CTAB) bilayer. Herein, we performed a double phase transfer ligand exchange to achieve displacement of CTAB on nanorods. During the removal, 11-mercaptoundecanoic acid (MUDA) crosslinker is simultaneously assembled on nanorod surfaces to prevent aggregation. The resulting MUDA–GNRs retain the shape and position of plasmon peaks similar to CTAB-capped GNRs. The introduction of carboxyl groups allows covalent conjugation of biological receptors in a facile fashion to construct a robust, label-free biosensor based on localized surface plasmon resonance (LSPR) transduction of biomolecular interaction. More importantly, smaller MUDA layer on the GNRs reduces the distance of target binding to the plasmonic nanostructure interface, leading to a significant enhancement in LSPR assay sensitivity and specificity. Compared to modification using conventional electropolymer adsorption, MUDA-coated gold nanosensor exhibits five times lower detection limit for cardiac troponin I assay with a high selectivity.