‘Come on, Frankie!’ I never expected to hear myself roaring that at the TV.
But as Francesco Molinari marched flawlessly through the final holes at Carnoustie, my Italian roots began to show. I was thinking of my two nephews in Genoa and I was reminded of my father, the first person I ever played a round of golf with, at the pitch-and-putt course in Bath half a century ago.
In those far-off days, the mere idea that an Italian might win The Open Championship would have seemed patent madness. Back then Baldovino Dassu was about the only Italian golfer anyone had heard of and, as far as my father was concerned, he didn’t really count. Dassu came from Florence, while he hailed from the mountains of Sicily. In South African terms it’s a bit like comparing a Lesotho subsistence farmer with a Johannesburg stockbroker.
Before Molinari’s heroics, the last time I had felt pride in the achievements of an Italian golfer was when Costantino Rocca beat Tiger Woods 4 & 2 at the 1997 Ryder Cup at Valderrama. Molinari cited Rocca as an inspiration when he spoke to the press with the Claret Jug in hand. ‘Costantino still is and will always be my hero and my idol,’ he said.
That goes for many in the Italian golfing diaspora. Rocca was one of those guys you couldn’t help liking, partly because he never took the game too seriously. He worked in a polystyrene factory in Bergamo for eight years before being persuaded to go to the European Tour Q-School.
He struggled to keep his card, but found his game when he was in his mid-thirties. In 1993 at The Belfry, Rocca became the first Italian to play at the Ryder Cup (Molinari was the next, in 2010). On the final day he was 1 up with two to play against Davis Love III, but missed a three-foot putt to lose the 17th, and then bogeyed the last to hand victory to the American. Rocca was blamed for Europe’s defeat, but my abiding memory is his tearful statement, ‘I no murder no one. I miss putt.’
Two other memories of Rocca resonate with me. The first was at the 1995 Open Championship. On the final day at St Andrews, John Daly had posted the clubhouse lead. Rocca was in the final group with Michael Campbell. The New Zealander failed to get the eagle he needed to tie Daly, while Rocca needed birdie.
Rocca hit a good drive, but duffed his chip into the ‘Valley of Sin’. Then he holed a 65-foot putt to make the playoff. The moment overcame him; he fell to his knees and lay on the sacred turf, beating the ground in ecstasy. It matters not that he lost the four-hole playoff by four shots; his place in history is assured. Which brings me to my second memory.
On the back of his performance at The Open, Rocca received his one and only invitation to Sun City. He began 76, 75, but when I spied him at the traditional ‘Beach Braai’ at the Valley of the Waves he was far from downhearted. He sidled up to the bar and ordered a large whisky. The barman said, ‘Say when’ and Rocca waited until the glass was full before nodding his head in satisfaction. On Saturday he shot a five-under-par 67.