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

The silence of the links is shattered by the noise of a buggy zooming up from nowhere with a laughing Italian on board. He jumps off, sees me, and starts to shrug his shoulders and wave his hands in typical, dramatic fashion.

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?"

News
people
News
people
News
peopleStella McCartney apologises over controversial Instagram picture
Life and Style
Laid bare: the Good2Go app ensures people have a chance to make their intentions clear about having sex
techCould Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Burr remains the baker to beat on the Great British Bake Off
tvRichard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
News
i100
Sport
footballArsenal 4 Galatasaray 1: Wenger celebrates 18th anniversary in style
Arts and Entertainment
Amazon has added a cautionary warning to Tom and Jerry cartoons on its streaming service
tv
News
people
News
The village was originally named Llansanffraid-ym-Mechain after the Celtic female Saint Brigit, but the name was changed 150 years ago to Llansantffraid – a decision which suggests the incorrect gender of the saint
newsA Welsh town has changed its name - and a prize if you can notice how
Arts and Entertainment
Kristen Scott Thomas in Electra at the Old Vic
theatreReview: Kristin Scott Thomas is magnificent in a five-star performance of ‘Electra’
News
Destructive discourse: Jewish boys look at anti-Semitic graffiti sprayed on to the walls of the synagogue in March 2006, near Tel Aviv
peopleAt the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity
Life and Style
Couples who boast about their relationship have been condemned as the most annoying Facebook users
tech
Arts and Entertainment
Hayley Williams performs with Paramore in New York
musicParamore singer says 'Steal Your Girl' is itself stolen from a New Found Glory hit
News
i100
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Science Teacher

£100 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Group: Key stage 3 and 4 Teacher requi...

RE Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Teacher of Religious Education ...

A Level Chemistry Teacher

£120 - £162 per day: Randstad Education Hull: A Level Chemistry Teacher - Humb...

NQT Secondary Teachers

£100 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Hull: Randstad Education is actively r...

Day In a Page

Italian couples fake UK divorce scam on an ‘industrial scale’

Welcome to Maidenhead, the divorce capital of... Italy

A look at the the legal tourists who exploited our liberal dissolution rules
Time to stop running: At the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity

Time to stop running

At the start of Yom Kippur and with anti-Semitism flourishing, one Jew can no longer ignore his identity
Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

Tom and Jerry cartoons now carry a 'racial prejudice' warning on Amazon

The vintage series has often been criticised for racial stereotyping
An app for the amorous: Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?

An app for the amorous

Could Good2Go end disputes about sexual consent - without being a passion-killer?
Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid. Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?

Llansanffraid is now Llansantffraid

Welsh town changes its name, but can you spot the difference?
Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

Charlotte Riley: At the peak of her powers

After a few early missteps with Chekhov, her acting career has taken her to Hollywood. Next up is a role in the BBC’s gangster drama ‘Peaky Blinders’
She's having a laugh: Britain's female comedians have never had it so good

She's having a laugh

Britain's female comedians have never had it so good, says stand-up Natalie Haynes
Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LED lights designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows

Let there be light

Sistine Chapel to ‘sing’ with new LEDs designed to bring Michelangelo’s masterpiece out of the shadows
Great British Bake Off, semi-final, review: Richard remains the baker to beat

Tensions rise in Bake Off's pastry week

Richard remains the baker to beat as Chetna begins to flake
Paris Fashion Week, spring/summer 2015: Time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris

A look to the future

It's time travel fashion at Louis Vuitton in Paris
The 10 best bedspreads

The 10 best bedspreads

Before you up the tog count on your duvet, add an extra layer and a room-changing piece to your bed this autumn
Arsenal vs Galatasaray: Five things we learnt from the Emirates

Arsenal vs Galatasaray

Five things we learnt from the Gunners' Champions League victory at the Emirates
Stuart Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

Lancaster’s long-term deal makes sense – a rarity for a decision taken by the RFU

This deal gives England a head-start to prepare for 2019 World Cup, says Chris Hewett
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence