Rocca aims to choke doubters

GOLF PETER CORRIGAN takes the Euro sceptics to task and believes that a portly Italian with a point to prove could be an unlikely talisman
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The Independent Online
APART from its visible tension, the characteristic that makes the Ryder Cup one of the greatest of all sporting dramas is its capacity to create heroes and villains in a trice. Golf is not a fast game, heaven knows, but the moment that a club dispatches the ball towards a glorious or disastrous destination can bring a rush of destiny at a very swift speed. Such a moment two years ago meant that Costantino Rocca is remembered not only as the first Italian to play in the Ryder Cup but also as the first Italian to be accused of cocking one up.

It was an outrageous slur to be affixed to his name but golf is never more cruel than when it transcends from its natural state as an individual pursuit into a team game of international importance. Rocca could foul up a chip as he did at the last in the Open at St Andrews in July and spectators felt able to wince sympathetically. When he prodded a two-foot putt past the 17th hole at the last Ryder Cup, golf fans over an entire continent took it as an affront.

He was playing Davis Love III, who was by no means the least gifted American, and was one up with two to play. Had he sunk that simple putt he would have been dormie one and needing only a half at the last to subscribe a point to a European total that would have prevented the eventual American victory. But having surrendered the 17th he bogeyed the last and Love took the match one up and that two-point swing was enough to give the US the match.

Other players, far more illustrious than Rocca, stumbled that afternoon. Seve Ballesteros lost 3 and 2 to Jim Gallagher Jnr, Jose Maria Olazabal was beaten by Ray Floyd two holes, Bernhard Langer was hammered 5 and 3 by Tom Kite. Nick Faldo and Ian Woosnam could only halve. But Rocca's short putt was immediately acknowledged as the defining moment of defeat and will go down in history as the main reason Europe lost.

Normally, comments made in the hubbub of the Press tent are treated as sacrosanct as anything said in the confessional. But I cannot resist the temptation to reveal that after Rocca's defeat a German sportswriter snorted to those nearby: "Bah, the Italians lost us two world wars and now they've lost us the Ryder Cup."

Rocca makes a tempting target. A portly, affable figure, by no means your archetypical golf professional with the designer clothes, the silky swing and the assured manner cultivated from early triumphs. A former factory worker who didn't start earning real golf money until he was 34; what the hell was he doing in the Ryder Cup anyhow?

Certainly, nobody invited him. He earned his place by chipping out enough money on the week-by-week grind of the European Tour to qualify automatically. Nobody has invited him this time but by dint of an irresistible consistency this inventive shot-maker is back in the team as the fourth highest qualifier. He is at present third in the European Order of Merit with winnings of pounds 432,415 this year.

But money can buy neither love nor immunity from those sudden attacks of golfing paralysis, known in the trade as "choking", which strike without warning at the most unfortunately crucial times. And after his fluffed chip at the Open the question now is whether Rocca has come under this most hurtful of golfing classifications.

Rocca is not happy at the prospect. He is reported to be waiting for someone with the courage to call him a choker to his face. Alas, the bravest of men can be a choker. You can strangle five lions with your bare hands and two hours later miss a two-foot putt for a tenner. Choking is an affliction that seeps into your body without warning and you suddenly find yourself strangled by the importance of the shot.

When the Italian faced that chip in the Open he was one shot from victory and two shots from a play-off. Of six players who were top of the leaderboard that morning he was the only one who held his game together to chase Daly up the last fairway. Others like Ernie Els, Corey Pavin, Steve Elkington and Michael Campbell had not lasted the pace; so when Rocca took a par at the Road Hole 17th he was the only challenger left. Someone without the courage demanded on such occasions would have putted from where Rocca was positioned just off the green. The locals would certainly have done so and they winced more than anyone when his chip turned out to be no more than an amateurish stab which sent the ball into the Valley of Sin, 60 feet from the hole.

History will record that Rocca thereupon holed the putt to force a play- off and his defenders greeted it as undeniable proof that he isn't a choker. It proved nothing of the kind. Chokers don't have any trouble achieving the unexpected - it is the expected that snares them.

Players are allowed the occasional inexplicably bad shot - Ian Woosnam missed a putt from 14 inches in the British Masters on Thursday - without being labelled as chokers and the evidence against Rocca can be rated as circumstantial. This week provides the ideal opportunity to examine him carefully at Oak Hill where he won't be the only one under the most searing scrutiny possible.

It will be a hard person who doesn't want him to nail the insult stone dead. Success and riches have been slow to reach the man from Bergamo, near Milan. For eight years he worked in a factory making polystyrene boxes until he acquired a four handicap and became caddie-master at the local golf club. He eventually became a professional player but had to go through the European Tour qualifying school four times before he elected to try his luck on the second-ranked Challenge Tour. He struggled to make a living until he obtained his full European Tour card in 1990. Three years later he became the first Italian to win a Tour event since Massimo Mannelli 13 years previously. Apart from the putt in the Ryder Cup, it was a good year for him and he earned over pounds 400,000, more than doubling his previous year's earnings.

Last year he was hampered by the loss of his clubs, including his favourite putter and wedge, and suffered a poisoned finger. He came back to register a number of good finishes, including a joint second in the European Open. This year he has maintained his impressive progress at the expenses of many longer established pros. He will be 40 next year with a remarkably tough road to the top behind him. It is hardly the age you'd expect a man to have to prove his true worth.

In the most pressurised of all golfing events, Costantino Rocca will be out to show he is not a choker. He wants the world to know it. His admirers have a greater priority - they want him to know it.