Golf: Rocca on a roll all the way to the bank: Tim Glover reports on the first Italian golfer to earn a European Ryder Cup team place

Click to follow
FOR a man who spent nine years working in a plastics factory making polystyrene boxes, Costantino Rocca is enjoying the sunshine. 'This,' he said, sheltering beneath a sun visor on the practice putting ground at the Forest of Arden, 'is much better than working.' Almost the antithesis of the modern professional, nobody has grafted harder than Rocca.

Even so, his extraordinary success on the European Tour has taken many by surprise. One coach describes him as a 'choker', the ultimate insult. Everything that Rocca has done this season suggests, on the contrary, that here is a player of talent and great fortitude.

At the age of 36, when a number of his fellow travellers in Europe are content to pick up place money and avoid the pressure points, he set himself two goals: to win his first Tour event and to make the European team for the 30th Ryder Cup match against the United States at The Belfry on 24 to 26 September.

Rocca has won twice this year and by finishing second to Ian Woosnam in the Murphy's English Open on Sunday earned pounds 66,660. That was the clincher. He moved up to fifth in the Ryder Cup table with pounds 371,257. He has been choking all the way to the bank. 'All my dreams have come true,' he said. 'It was very important to me to become the first Italian.'

The closest connection his family had with golf is that they lived about one kilometre from the Bergamo Golf Club. Rocca, one of three sons of a mineworker, picked up the scent by working as a caddie from the age of seven. He subsequently became employed by the club as caddie master and his handicap gradually fell.

'They would only let him play in certain competitions,' Guido Callioni said. Callioni, a member at Bergamo for 30 years, has become Rocca's mentor and travelling companion. It is an honorary position. There are only a handful of Italians on the Tour, a reflection of the game nationally. There are 120 courses in Italy, about 20,000 players. There is only one public course in the entire country.

'The game is only for people with money,' Callioni said. 'It is very snobbish. Costantino has had to do it all by himself. He has had no help from the Italian Federation. All they are interested in is amateur golf.' The Federation will be interested in him now.

From caddie master to teaching professional, Rocca was persuaded by an Australian coach to try for his Tour card. He turned professional in 1981, at the ripe old age of 25, and has been a familiar face at the Qualifying School. He regained his card by finishing third on the Challenge Tour in 1989 and it was that that gave him the confidence to make an impact on the regular circuit. He was 16th in the Ryder Cup table two years ago - there was no chance of him being one of the captain's three choices - and won close on pounds 200,000 last year.

He surpassed that this season, making his breakthrough victory in the Open du Grand Lyon in April and setting a course record of 63 in the final round, which earned him a pounds 10,000 bonus from Johnnie Walker. His father died later that month. The win in Lyon was sandwiched between third place in the Kronenbourg Open and third in the Roma Masters. At the Spanish Open in May, where he was joint 12th, he walked into the Tour office and entered every remaining tournament that counted towards Cup points up to the Volvo German Open, which starts tomorrow. One win can sometimes be dismissed, two cannot, and when he won the French Open at a course not dissimilar to that at The Belfry, he stuck another pounds 83,000 into his money-belt.

It is a tight belt, at that. Rocca, 5ft 8in and 13st 4lb, looks like a light- heavyweight. Naturally, he once played football but kept returning to the golf course. He still lives in the same house, with his wife, two children and his mother. His brothers live nearby, one a plumber, the other a factory worker. Neither plays golf. Rocca is adept at making pasta, although he refuses to eat it in Britain. 'No good,' he said. 'Overcooked. You pick up the pasta too late out of the water. Five minutes too late.'

He drinks and smokes and when he lights up a cigarette it does nothing for the nerves of Callioni, the chaperone. Callioni, who owns a business in Milan, fiddles with a dummy cigarette, a placebo in his attempt to kick the habit.

'I am his friendly manager,' Callioni said. 'There is no money involved. He should not be by himself on tour. It is a very tough life. He is a very nice person, very honest. He is timid, shy. The opposite of a star.' When he played in the Irish Open he moved out of his hotel, which he regarded as too noisy, and moved into an old-folks nursing home.

Last Saturday, Rocca won another bonus for another course record, 64 at the Forest of Arden. He is regarded as a streaky putter. 'The day I can putt,' he said, 'is the day I can win.' The strongest part of his game is his iron play.

Nick Faldo partnered him in the Benson and Hedges International at St Mellion and was impressed. 'He can fade and draw the ball,' Faldo said, 'and he wasn't afraid to try things. It's the sign of a good player.' Alex Hay said: 'He's a very natural golfer with a wonderful pair of hands.'

A few years ago, before he won the Masters at Augusta, Woosnam was often called Woosman in America. Rocca, who is invariably referred to as Constantino, has reached a similar watershed. The journeyman has arrived.

(Photograph omitted)