x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Catching up with an old friend

One of the joys of a day in the sunshine at Troon in the company of the 'golden guys' competing at the Senior British Open is renewing acquaintances with old friends such as Costantino Rocca, one of the most beguiling characters ever to traipse the fairways of the world.

One of the joys of a day in the sunshine at Troon in the company of the 'golden guys' competing at the Senior British Open is renewing acquaintances with old friends such as Costantino Rocca, one of the most beguiling characters ever to traipse the fairways of the world. Although he came within a single shot of winning the British Open at St Andrews in 1995 (eventually losing to John Daly in a four-hole play-off) and won a clutch of tournaments on the regular Tour including the PGA Championship and the European Masters, it is his two winning appearances in the Ryder Cup in 1995 and 1997 that provide a warm glow on the cold winter nights at the Rocca family home in Bergamo.

At Valderrama in 1997, the Italian's 4 & 2 trouncing of Tiger Woods in the climactic day's singles was crucial in Europe's heart-stopping 14-13 victory. "OK, so I lose the Open but to win the Ryder Cup twice is like nothing else in golf, not even a major," he says. "For me simply to play in the Ryder Cup is a miracle." A miracle, indeed. Rocca's father, who died of stomach cancer the week after his first victory on the European Tour in the Lyon Open of 1993, spent his life down the quartz mines in the hills surrounding Bergamo Golf Club, an area of Lombardy where the number of boys who dream of playing in the Ryder Cup will be roughly the same as the number of lads in the mining communities of Fife who dream of playing La Scala Milano.

Rocca was just seven when he trotted past the Lamborghinis, Alfas and Maseratis in the Bergamo GC car park and into a whole new world. "I started as a caddie; no bigger than the bags I had to carry," he says. "When I went into the rough to look for a ball, they lost me. "When I was older I climbed through the bushes at night to play golf. "I played in the dark, by the light of a torch. If I did not hear anything I knew I was in middle of fairway.

"If I heared 'crack-crack-crack' I knew I was in trees. Lost ball." By the age of 15 Rocca was the proud owner of a discarded two-iron with which he drove, chipped and putted while working as a machine operator in a factory making polystyrene. At 18, when "playing golf once a month if I was lucky" a generous benefactor bestowed an ancient set of clubs upon him. At 24 he left the shop-floor to become afull-time caddie master.

"After nine years working the pressing machine, my fingers were like this," he demonstrates, curling his hand into an arthritic claw. The Bergamo club members, appreciative of Rocca as both a caddie master and an exciting natural talent, funded a three-month course at the National Golf School in Rome where gained his professional teaching certificate, allowing him to make his Tour debut in the 1983 Tunisian Open.

"Imagine how I felt on the first tee," he says. "A little Italian who has never played in a tournament, who did not speak English and who had no friends. "It was my very first time outside Italy, only second time on airplane. Now that is fear." An innocent abroad, Rocca had not heard of the Ryder Cup - "the first time was when I watched Eamonn Darcy's hole winning putt on TV in 1987 and I sae how angry the Americans were" - while naively imagining golf to be a sport played in warm Italian sunshine and on beautifully manicured courses such as Bergamo.

"Then I played the British Open pre-qualifying in Scotland," he said. "Wind, rain, freezing cold. 'What is this?' I asked myself. 'I cannot play golf here. This is Antarctica.' But I learned." That he did. By 1993 Rocca, then 36, was not only a major force on the Tour but had become the first Italian to compete in the Ryder Cup. "Always I thought I was not good enough to compete against people like Seve Ballesteros or Bernhard Langer.

"Then when I started to win tournaments my confidence rose. But for me, Severiano [a name which takes an eternity for Rocca to enunciate when accorded its full five syllables] is still the best. "He is like Diego Maradona, a magic man. We practised at the Riviera Club before the US PGA and he chipped out of the thick rough to within three inches of the hole. 'How you do this?' I asked him. "'Like this,' says Seve as he waggled his wrists and chipped the ball even closer to the pin

"'Thank you,' I said, thinking it is maybe time to go back to the factory where I worked from two each afternoon until six in the morning." It sounds like hell upon earth. "No, it is not too bad. I liked those hours because it meant I could play golf in the morning," he addes. "Even if I still worked there today, I would have my wife Antonella, son Francesco and daughter Chiara. So I would be happy man.

"My life would be very different, but my life would be fun. In factory, I still eat, drink and laugh." And there we must take our reluctant leave of Costantino Rocca, one of golf's great champions and great gentlemen. @Email:sports@thenational.ae