A larger-than-life personality with a robot's consistency

 

CONSISTENCY, we are told, is the true yardstick by which a successful competitor should be measured. So, who was the world's most consistent golfer in 1995? Greg Norman? Or perhaps it was Colin Montgomerie? In fact both of these competitive giants were out shone by the unlikely figure of Costantino Rocca, who simply didn't know what it was to play a poor round.

However, the Italian, who was fifth in the Smurfit European Open at The K Club, contributed infinitely more than consistency to the world's tournament arenas - he brought badly-needed humour to the game. "Rocca smiles as he loses to Love" was one of the headlines in an American newspaper on the Monday after Europe's Ryder Cup victory at Oak Hill. It captured the essence of a remarkable sportsman.

First, let us consider his playing record for the season just ended. In 28 strokeplay tournaments, he never missed a cut and had only two finishes lower than 30th in the Volvo PGA Championship in which he was 37th and five weeks later in the BMW International in Munich, where he was 39th.

Equally fascinating is the fact that he compiled close on £1 million in tournament earnings without winning. However, as might be expected from such a solid practitioner, he had quite a number of top-10 finishes, including a recent fifth in the Casio World Open in Japan, and seventh in Sun City, quite apart from claiming the runner-up position in the Andalucia Open, the Majorca Open, the Benson and Hedges International, the European Masters and, of course, the British Open.

Who could forget the British Open? There, on the 72nd hole, we witnessed all of the wildly-contrasting emotions which combine to make Rocca such a larger-than-life personality. His anguished thumping of the St Andrews turf after he had duffed a sandwedge chip into the Valley of Sin, followed by unbridled exultation when an outrageous 60-foot recovery putt answered the bidding of a barely credulous caddie, Michael Doran, by racing into the hole. "I do not try to make the putt but my caddie was saying `come, come, come,' I never saw the ball go in." he admitted afterwards.

And who could forget Oak Hill and the amazing hole-in-one he scored with a five-iron at the 167-yard sixth, in the Saturday morning's foursomes in partnership with Sam Torrance? Once again, his joy was palpable as he said: "It's been a great day for me. Imagine, my seventh hole in one - and I've never won a car."

To those of us who have become rather tired of listening to very fortunate professionals complaining about their lot, Rocca is like a breath of fresh air. One would never doubt his sincerity when he says: "If I miss a putt, it is not like me losing my job. Everyone is saying the life is nicer. It is nicer. If something bad happens, it happens. But I won't think about it." That's what makes Rocca different.

In the process he has acquired an admirably relaxed attitude towards the media. Like on a recent occasion when a reporter approached him: "Costantino, can I ask a couple of questions." "OK, two questions," he replied. "Two questions?" "That's one question; what's the second one?"

The player, who celebrated his 39th birthday on December 4th, has been described as the Cinderfella who graduated from eight years in a box factory to the most glamorous tee-boxes in golf. And nobody more appreciative of his good fortune than the man himself., At an age when most of his fellow professionals elsewhere in the world were seeking their first driver's licence, he had quit school to work in a plastics factory in his native Bergamo, 30 miles from Milan, to help support his family.

There he would stand at the machine press for up to 10 hours a day, with warm water pouring over his gnarled hands, causing them to cramp up overnight with threatened arthritis. Now, those hands are typically smooth and tanned, befitting a man of his craft. It is the life he dreamed of when, through the factory windows, he would look longingly down the hill towards the local golf course, where he would steal in to practise at night.

His father, Angelo, wanted him to be a racing cyclist and frowned on Costantino's involvement with the local soccer club, Atalanta. He was a very promising player and gained the distinction as a 23-year-old striker of scoring 11 goals in 10 matches. But the pull old the fairways proved to be irresistible, with the result that he quit the plastics factory to take up a position as caddie-master at the local club.

Then fate played a hand in 1981 when Rocca made a visit to Rome to gain his teaching qualification from the Italian PGA. There Australian professional Tom Linskey suggested to him that he was good enough to try his luck at the IPGA European Tour School. And, as they say, the rest is history. Well, not quite. In fact Rocca had to return to the School in 1984, 1985 and 1986, before gaining a regular place among on the exempted list.

During that early period of his tournament career, he was often close to quitting. "I could see my game was better than the other guys, but I never make as good score as the other guy because I feel anger when I miss," he explained. Only the intervention of his wife, Antonella, saved his career. She had known him since she was 14 and he was 18.

Aware of his struggle and determined that her husband should have every possible chance of succeeding at the game he loved, she went to work in a sportswear factory to support them, while Costantino made barely enough to cover his expenses on tour. Even as late at 1989, he finished the season in 175th position in the Order of Merit, with extremely modest earnings of £13,561.

It was only entering the current decade that the venture began to make any sense. In 1990, earnings of £87,562 brought him to 48th in the Order of Merit, then he progressed to 26th (£163,805) the following year and consolidated that status in 1992 for 27th position and earnings off 192,912.

EVENTUALLY the breakthrough came in 1993 when he captured the Lyon Open, followed by the French Open in which he beat Ireland's Paul McGinley in a play-off. Rocca was on his way there was no need for Antonella to go out to work any more and their two children, Chiara and Francesco, could begin to enjoy the trappings of wealth.

Honours came rapidly. In September 1993 he earned the distinction of becoming the first Italian to play in the Ryder Cup. It was a sad baptism in that he squandered a winning chance in his singles match against Davis Love. His Italian friends still hold bitter memories of that setback as they believe their man failed to receive the sort of moral support from European skipper Bernard Gallacher that Love got from Tom Watson.

Though he had to endure almost two months of fitful sleep because of that setback, Rocca finally confronted the issue with crushing simplicity. When questioned about it for the umpteenth time, he responded: "I just miss a putt, I don't kill anybody."

Meanwhile, a lighter side to the situation resulted from the action of Gallacher in sending a fellow-Latin, Seve Ballesteros, to comfort Rocca in his moment of devastation. The European skipper recalls: "When I saw Rocca later, I asked if Seve had got to him. He said yes, that Seve had come over tears were streaming down his face and he looked so sad. Rocca told him: `Don't worry Seve, we'll get them next time.'

The words proved to be prophetic and both of them were in tears as I joined the triumphant Europeans around the 18th green at Oak Hill in September.

It also prompted a change of attitude by Gallacher towards a player who had been perceived as a weak link at The Belfry in 1993. Reflecting on his contribution at Oak Hill, the Scot remarked: Rocca doesn't say a lot, because no one else speaks Italian except Seve. And what carries Rocca through is his technique. He's got a great swing. David Leadbetter and I have been observing him and we both agree that the thing that keeps Rocca going. week in, week out, every week for the last two years, has been his wonderful technique."

The Ryder Cup has been a very rewarding experience for the Italian on other levels. As he says: "By staying with the top players for a week, you see how they make the life away from the course. I can see that they are not like robots. Sometimes they are happy and sometimes they are angry but inside they recognise what they are. I see that Seve is a big man, a big champion but that he needed a lot of experience to make him strong."

Meanwhile, Rocca has retained close links with soccer, as I discovered when talking to him during the US Open at Oakmont, before Ireland's defeat of Italy in the 1994 World Cup. He has gained valuable help from the eminent Italian psychologist, Dr Bruno de Michelis, who is best known for his work with AC Milan. "I saw him four or five times," said Rocca. "He's a very nice man. He gave me help in reorganising myself, in helping me to concentrate and stay calm. I now see only the good things. If something bad happens, it happens. But I won't think about it."

For most of his tournament career Costantino Rocca had become used to the notion of his work commanding respect rather than adulation. And he sees no reason things should be any different now, even with his extraordinary success. His father once advised him: "respect everybody and your life it will be perfect." In the best Italian tradition. he has been a dutiful son.