The Monday Interview: Rocca looking forward to another rollercoaster ride
A born-again Italian golfer aims to go one better in this year's Open and take the title. Ian Stafford talks to a Ryder Cup star on the trail of his first major
Monday 15 July 1996
Costantino Rocca is late for our meeting. He may only be 10 minutes late, but it still produces profuse apologies and various facial expressions. He points to the small putting green beside the concrete monstrosity of a clubhouse at Carnoustie. "Please just a few putts, and then I'm with you," he says in his faltering and endearing English.
In his language, "a few putts" means just that. He lines six balls up, looks at a hole six feet away, and begins. His first effort circumnavigates the lip of the hole before deciding to stay up. The rest plopped into the hole in identical fashion. The whole exercise took two minutes before he looked up at me, nodded his head with self-approval, and said: "Good. Now we talk."
Rocca is a week away from the Open, a tournament he so nearly won last year at St Andrews, when his incredible, 60-foot putt at the last dragged himself and the eventual winner, John Daly, into a dramatic play-off. Success, both individually and collectively, then followed in the Ryder Cup, laying the ghosts of the 1993 event, before he joined the big boys by winning the PGA at Wentworth in May.
Consequently, the rather rotund 39-year-old Papa from Bergamo suddenly finds himself as one of the main men to watch at Lytham, where he, and a growing number of his supporters, will be hoping for an improvement of just one position from last year.
His fortunes have enjoyed an extraordinary turnaround. In 1993 few had even heard of Rocca. After all, Italians played football, didn't they, not golf? Even Rocca once felt this way. "When I was 13 I was given chance to have a trial with the Atalanta football club," he tells you, lighting up his first, post practice-round Marlboro. "I play in every position, starting at 4, right up to 11, but I was best in midfield. I was big and strong, and other players bounced off me." He grabs a handful of flesh from his side. "You can see why, no?"
So what happened? "My father told me it is better for me to go and work in the local factory because the work was more sure." As he finishes the sentence he bursts into laughter and lands the first of what proved to be many friendly slaps on my arm.
So that is what the young Rocca did. At 15 he left school and went to work in a polystyrene box factory where, for the next eight years, his hands were immersed in the warm water made to make the mould. "I played football on Sunday mornings, and golf in the evenings at the Golf Club L'Albuenza, with a torch. My father did not like me playing golf because he thought it was only for the rich and privileged."
Despite the obvious handicaps, Rocca's moonlit rounds of golf led to a four-handicap and a job at the club as a caddie-master and coach. Within a couple of years he had obtained his European Tour card and turned professional. "My father had two worries. When I started coming home with some money from golf he was happy, but he was still concerned that playing golf would change me, my attitude and my values. It has not, and now he is OK."
Rocca spent 10 years on the tour, learning his trade and watching the stars in action. It was only in 1993 when, as the first Italian to qualify for the Ryder Cup, he suddenly became noticed by a wider public. This was to end in disaster. Rocca was by no means the only player in the European team to under-perform, but somehow his failure to finish off Davis Love III, when he had him at his mercy at The Belfry, left many blaming the stocky Italian for just about everything.
Rocca laughs about it now. "A lot of newspapers say it was me who lost Ryder Cup," he admits, stubbing out his cigarette and fumbling in his pocket for another. "They say Rocca this, Rocca that. But I am happy. It was the first time I had so much written about me in the newspapers." Another slap on the upper arm, and a genuine roar of laughter follows, before his face finally grows a serious expression. "I had far too much respect for everyone at the Ryder Cup. Most of those guys play golf for many years at the top even before I was professional. I looked at Faldo, I looked at Langer, I looked at Seve, and then I looked at me.
"But after the Ryder Cup was finished I was OK." He leans forward to make the next point. "You see, playing golf is my job. It is very important to keep going. If you have a bad day in the factory, you still have to go to work the next day. Only difference is that in golf, you have to go to work the next day and play very well, 'cos you have no money if you play bad golf."
But even he felt that something was missing from his game. When others first suggested he should consult a sports psychologist, he laughed at them and ignored their advice. "People said, 'Why not? Everybody else in golf uses them.'
"Then I realise I did not know who I was. Everyone's playing good golf, so if you miss three putts you are back in 20th place. My putting used to be very poor. When I looked at a three-foot putt, it looked more like 10 feet. I stood over the ball telling myself I couldn't sink the putt. So I decided to see a psychologist."
His twice-monthly meetings have resulted in dramatic transformations in his attitude and in his results. Behind the archetypal characteristics of the Italian now lies a deep-thinking, confident golfer, no longer in awe of anyone, and no longer in fear of any situation that arises. "I concentrate so much better now. I've learned to look at why I miss shots, understand and then move on, not letting that last shot bother me any more."
If ever this was put to the test it was at last year's Open, the first real suggestion that Rocca was a different proposition. John Daly was safely in the clubhouse, leaving Rocca with what looked like a simple chip and and a putt to tie the lead. Instead, he produced one of the most horrific shots in the history of the Open, leaving him 60 feet away from the hole.
Rocca, just for a change, laughs. "I knew it was easy to get it in two but, I tell you, I try to hole it. I didn't have to do that, and when I make the mistake I cannot think where the shot had come from. "But," he adds, waggling his finger at me, "I then forget about it, and the second time try to hole it. I couldn't see the hole, but when the ball disappeared I knew I had done it."
There then followed one of the most amazing scenes witnessed at the Open. Rocca sunk to his knees, and lay flat on the grass, pummelling his fists with joy while the watching spectators went berserk, and Daly watched, shaking his head with incredulity. "I tell you, I never done that before," Rocca said."I was given a photo later, and behind me everyone was jumping in the stands." The fact that the American went on to capture the Open is almost irrelevant to Rocca. "You see, that first, bad shot at the 18th was the Costantino Rocca of old. The second shot was the new Costantino Rocca. And I was happy because I was in the Ryder Cup team again, and I wanted to play well for Europe."
The week before last year's Ryder Cup the new Rocca, now well aware of the powers of the mind, performed an exercise which might have backfired but instead pumped him with confidence. "I stayed at home the week before instead of playing and watched the 1993 Ryder Cup on tape," he said. "We lost then 'cos the Americans holed everything. It was not our fault. I told myself that the Americans couldn't play as well again, and that we were a much better team, and I was a much better player. I went knowing that the Americans would have to play very well to beat me."
At Oak Hill, Rocca, who had been referred to as "The Choker" after the 1993 Cup, produced a towering performance. Nothing seemed to penetrate his nerve and attitude, except for when he became only the third player to hole in one in the cup's history, which produced the usual Latin histrionics, and a leap into his partner Sam Torrance's arms.
If it was a triumph for Europe, and for the hitherto beleaguered captain, Bernard Gallacher, then it was also Rocca's redemption. "Who would believe it," he said. "If someone told me when I was playing by the light of the torch at Bergamo as a boy that I would do this, I would think he have too much vino."
Last May Rocca finally became a winner, "big time", as he puts it, when he fought off Nick Faldo, of all people, to claim the Volvo PGA. "Now I am a winner," he said. "It's good helping Europe win the Ryder Cup, sure, and it's good to finish second in the Open, but I need to win as well."
He enters this week's Open confident and determined to win, not because of last year's near-miss, but just because the new Rocca aims to take the next, natural progression to his career and win a major. "Last year was last year. It is a different course and a different tournament, but every time I play I think I can now win. I think it is time I win a major, what you think?"
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