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The Rock
Rick Reilly
September 25, 1995
Life wasn't supposed to be perfect for Costantino Rocca—it just turned out that way
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September 25, 1995

The Rock

Life wasn't supposed to be perfect for Costantino Rocca—it just turned out that way

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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 month.

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 nothingness.

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 birthday.

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 Venice unaccosted.

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.

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