Uh, Signore Rocca, isn't that your putter that your
four-year-old son is dragging along the clubhouse cobblestones?
"Si," says Costantino Rocca, laughing with a tableful of friends
and relatives around him.
But isn't that the putter with which you made the historic
65-foot putt on the 72nd hole at St. Andrews this summer?
"Si, si," Rocca says, digging happily into the football-sized
heap of steaming spaghetti alla Arrabiata.
September 24, 1995
You gave it to him?
"No," Rocca says chuckling.
So you've changed putters for the Ryder Cup?
"No," he replies, sipping his wine. "This is the putter I will
"My friend," says Rocca as little Francesco wanders off,
dragging and scraping the Mona Lisa behind him. "I have hundreds
of putters, but I have only one son."
Of all the people in all the world, maybe the last person you
would figure to have cornered the market on happiness is
Costantino Rocca, the unfrowning, unsinkable, undieting Italian
whom golf keeps discovering.
Rocca, 38, is the Cinderfella who rose from eight years in a box
factory to the most glamorous tee boxes in golf--only to fall
unceremoniously after missing a putt no longer than a nice piece
of linguini to seal Europe's 1993 Ryder Cup loss at the Belfry
in England. Rocca as in choke-a.
This did not ruin Rocca. For he came back in July to execute
three of the most unforgettable shots in British Open history--an
impossible putt, an unforgivable chunk and an unthinkable
prayer--and force a playoff with John Daly, who has no feel for
operettas about sweet Italians and stomped Rocca flat.
This, too, did not ruin Rocca. You half expected to come to his
village of Bergamo, 50 kilometers from Milan, and find Rocca
gripping leg tables and towel racks to keep from being dragged
back to the Ryder Cup this week, at Oak Hill Country Club in
Rochester, N.Y. Instead, you find him beaming like a Milanese
maitre d' as he says, "You must eat and drink wine with my
family and friends."
The wine, of course, is an offer you can't refuse, not when it's
the Roccas' own, grown on the vines behind their modest house
for years--splendid reds and whites, for family and friends only.
Of course, the Roccas have so much family and so many friends,
they make 3,000 liters a year. The wine is like Costantino
himself: simple, unsophisticated and ... "no headache in the
morning," he says, laughing.
Costantino, how is it that you are always so happy, no matter
how many pianos fall on your head?
"Is just me," he says, shrugging joyfully.
Is just him: Whenever he speaks in public about his wife,
Antonella, whom he met when she was 14 and he was 18, and their
two children, Chiara, 10, and Francesco, his eyes well up. When
he leaves the family for a long trip, he cries. When he is on
the road, he writes his feelings on a bedside pad and then gives
those notes to his wife upon his return. Time does not pass when
I am gone from you, he will write. When children walk in front
of him or ask for his autograph, he caresses their hair with his
cupped hand, as though each child were his own.
He makes it exceedingly difficult to root against him. It is not
unusual, after a round, for Rocca to give away every loose item
in his bag--balls, tees, gloves, markers and sweaters. Often he
dispatches his caddie, Michael Doran, to the hotel to get a
shirt for a child. Sometimes when he's home from the tour,
Costantino will come into the house and holler to Antonella,
"Don't you have any of my T-shirts or sweaters we can give him?"
He is referring to the boy who cleans his clubs, who is waiting
on the porch, disbelieving.
Rocca does not do all these things because he is finally rich.
Or because he is happy to be one of the finest players in the
world despite having come from modest beginnings. Rocca would be
doing these things if he contracted a permanent shank virus
tomorrow: "Even if I still work in factory, I still eat, drink
and laugh, true?"
He grew up just a few blocks from the Golf Club L'Albenza. But
his father, Angelo, a gravel miner, never liked the idea of his
son caddying there. Angelo did not think rich people and poor
people should mix. He thought the sooner a man got to work and
supported his family, the better. And though Costantino was
asked by the Atilanta Bergamo soccer club to try out in 1969,
when he was 13, Angelo refused to let him. He wanted his son to
become a bike racer.
By 15, Costantino had dropped out of school and begun work at
the factory, where he ran the mold that made the boxes,
sometimes more than 2,000 a day, his hands constantly immersed
in hot water. God, that water. He would wake up in the morning,
his hands gnarled and cramped half-closed from the arthritis
that was already setting in. All this for 500,000 lire ($300) a
No wonder something was always pulling him to the golf course.
With his mother covering for him should his dad become
suspicious about his whereabouts, Costantino and a friend and
their shared two-iron would jump the club's fence after dark.
They carried a flashlight to see the ball and the hole. There
were guards, so the boys had to be careful; to evade the guards
they would play 11, 12, 13 and 14, over and over again.
"Is good practice at night," Rocca recalls. "You hit the ball
and listen. If you hear crack-crack-crack, you know you have hit
the trees. Lost ball. But you hear nothing, you know you are in
the middle of the fairway."
Rocca often heard nothing. And the more nothing he heard, the
more he liked it. But even as he began playing during daylight
hours, there wasn't much time for golf. He was on a
six-day-a-week schedule at the factory, and Rocca split his one
day off between golf and soccer. Remarkably, given how little he
played, he was down to a four handicap by his early 20's. When
Rocca was 23, L'Albenza's club secretary saw how much nothing
Rocca could hit. He insisted that Rocca give up his factory job
and become the club caddiemaster, the better to perfect his
Rocca resembles anything but an athlete, yet he is a natural
one. As a 23-year-old center on his last amateur soccer team, he
scored 11 goals in 10 games. In his one year as caddiemaster,
his golf game got very good, very fast. And when an Australian
golf professional named Tom Linskey saw Rocca in Rome in 1981,
as Rocca was getting his teaching license, Linskey suggested
that he play the European PGA Tour's qualifying tournament.
Rocca shrugged and said he would try it.
He won his card and lost it again three times, but in 1990, at
the age of 33, he made enough money, $125,000, to stay on the
tour for good. By '93 he was contending for championships. This
from a man who didn't get his first set of clubs (used) until he
was 18 and was lucky if he played once a month before his 22nd
Even Angelo was grudgingly beginning to like the game, though it
was damn hard to brag on his son. Golf was not shown on
television. Golf was not mentioned in the sporting papers. Even
when Costantino danced on the world's stage at the British Open
this year, one Italian sports daily never mentioned it, and
another ran just a picture of Rocca and a short boxed item.
Rocca gets mobbed in St. Andrews but can walk the streets of
But as success came to Costantino in 1993, Angelo was dying of
stomach cancer, and Costantino desperately wanted to win a
tournament for him. He did, at Lyons, France. He rushed home
that night to give the trophy to his father. And though the old
man could no longer speak, the family knew he was terribly
proud. The tears rolling down his craggy face told you that.
That night Costantino shaved his father for the last time.
Angelo died a week later.
Rocca won again that year and qualified for the pressure cooker
known as the Ryder Cup. Here was an unknown Italian who had
never played in a major tournament, much less in the world's
most intense match-play event.
And yet Rocca seemed implacable that week. His first drive was
perfect, followed by a perfect five-iron to six feet. Still, he
and his partner, Mark James, lost badly to Corey Pavin and Jim
Gallagher Jr., 5 and 4. In the Sunday singles, playing against
the lean and glamorous Davis Love III, Rocca battled back from
one down to get one up standing on the 17th tee. As luck would
have it, the Rocca-Love match suddenly emerged as the crucial
one. If Rocca could hold his lead, Europe had a chance to win
back the Cup.
The four-footer for par on 17 seemed easy enough. "But I think I
do like this over it," Rocca says, swaying forward. He missed.
And when Love made par to Rocca's bogey at the 18th hole, the
Cup was mathematically America's.
Nobody remembers that Europe's Peter Baker was 3 up with five to
play and lost that Sunday. And nobody remembers that of the four
Europeans playing behind Rocca--Seve Ballesteros, Jose Maria
Olazabal, Bernhard Langer and Nick Faldo--only Faldo could so
much as tie. The smile was finally gone from Rocca's rosy face.
"When I see the result," he says, "I know it is my fault."
European captain Bernard Gallacher sent Ballesteros into the
locker room to console Rocca, but Rocca later asked Gallacher,
"Why did you send Seve in there? He cried more than me."
"For two months Costantino didn't sleep," says Antonella. "I
would wake up at night and see him staring." Rocca played the
tape of the putt over and over, trying to numb himself into
never making such a mistake again. Eventually it came to him
that the miss was not all bad. "I go anywhere, they know me," he
says. "I go to Japan, they know me! I never see a player miss a
putt and become so famous." Besides, as he told the world's
press at this year's British Open: "I just miss a putt. I don't
He came back. He finished 30th on the Order of Merit in 1994,
and this July he had a week of weeks at St. Andrews, where on
Sunday, in a matter of minutes, he hit three shots that will
never be forgotten.
The Road Putt: "This is what most people want to talk to me
about now," Rocca says. The ball was sitting in a good-sized
hole in the paved road that runs to the right of and behind the
17th green. Daly was in the clubhouse at six under, and Rocca
was five under. Rocca needed somehow to chip the ball off the
road and up a weed-strewn four-foot bank and get it to stop on a
merciless green sloping toward the dreaded Road Bunker, the
place where 4s go to become 11s.
No problem. "Watch this," Rocca says, standing in the Golf Club
L'Albenza clubhouse and gripping that magic putter, which
Francesco has finally brought back. "When your ball is in a
hole"--he sets the ball in a crack between the slate slabs of the
floor--"you must hit hard with the putter. Like this!" He smacks
the ball hard, and it pops four feet in the air and bounces with
topspin onto the couch. He repeats this shot 20 times, and
almost every ball ends up on the seat cushions. At St. Andrews
the ball settled within five feet of the hole. Rocca made the
putt. Still one down.
The Chili Dip: A wonderful drive left Rocca only 10 yards from
the green of the par-4 18th, the antique hole that sits in the
middle of the old town of St. Andrews. With the planet watching,
Rocca readied an easy chip toward the pin to set up the birdie
that would tie Daly. "I was not nervous," he says. "I just try
to--how you say it?--nip the chip too hard." What he did was flub
it. Chunk it. Hit a shot that even rental-club players close
their eyes in shame for hitting. The ball plunked itself down
again three yards later, lifeless.
And yet, even through this, Rocca smiled.
"I think, Where this shot come from?" In Italy, Antonella held
her hands to her face and moaned, "Oh, no!" If it took two
months of agony to get over a putt, what would this take? Her
husband would live a life of next-table whispers and
down-the-practice-range chuckles: Costantino Rocca, the most
famous gag artist ever. But, wait....
The Putt of Redemption: "C'mon, just make it," said Doran,
bravely. But Rocca was not thinking about making this one from
off the green. His hands were shaking, and his knees wanted to
go somewhere and sit down. He wanted to two-putt. If he
three-putted, he would finish in a three-way tie for fifth. Do
you know how many lire there are between finishing second and
tied for fifth? (142.4 million lire, or $88,067, to be exact.)
"I do not try to make this putt," Rocca admits.
He hit it hard, probably too hard, but, he says, "as it gets
five or six meters away, I see Michael moving his body like
crazy, and I think, Maybe!" And sure enough, it dived into the
hole, and bowls of potato chips flew off laps all over the
world, and Antonella wept, and Daly clutched his wife's head to
his chest as if the judge had just said, "Guilty."
Rocca smiled at this, too. He stared up at God and then
collapsed, facedown, pounding the sweet Scottish earth.
As it turned out, the four-hole playoff was a wipeout. Rocca
says a gust pushed him just as he putted on the first hole, and
he blew the ball eight feet by the cup and made a bogey. Then
Daly made a 30-foot undulating work of art on the second. At the
Road Hole, Rocca hit his second into the face of the Road Bunker
and had no chance to come out toward the hole--but tried anyway.
The ball didn't come out. He tried again. It didn't come out. On
his third attempt, he made it out and clapped heartily for
Rocca emerged from that deep bunker as the most wonderful sport
in golf, a man who has the right idea: Compete with laughter and
grace, and if you must lose, lose with laughter and grace, and
then give away everything in your bag for good measure. In fact,
he was so distraught afterward that all he could do was cook
pasta and drink whiskey with 16 friends, laughing nearly until
the sun came up.
He has gone from being the Ryder Cup's goat to one of its top
dogs. He finished fourth among Europeans in Ryder Cup points and
is coming off a second at the British Open, a 17th at the U.S.
PGA Championship and a tie for second at the European Masters.
Rocca as in rock.
"Why should I fear the Ryder Cup?" he says, wide-eyed. "I love
it. Is like nothing else in golf, not even a major. For me to
play is a ... a ... miracle."
How does a man learn such things?
"My father say to me, 'Respect everybody, and your life, it will
be perfect,'" Rocca says. "Then, even if you are poor on the
outside, on the inside you are rich."
Down the clubhouse hallway Francesco has lagged a nice-sized
rock with his papa's putter. Costantino laughs.