Costantino Rocca is arguably the most inspirational figure in the history of Italian golf but his legacy goes beyond the borders of his home country. He was also one of the Challenge Tour’s early pioneers, the first player to ascend from its ranks and break through to worldwide fame.
The Italian has produced many memorable moments during a career which yielded five European Tour titles, three Ryder Cup appearances, with two wins, and a place in Open Championship folklore.Every single success for Rocca was a success for the Challenge Tour, the earliest and most patent indication of the kind of glory a player can achieve after earning their salt on the second tier.
In 1989, Rocca, like so many other players competing in the first season of the European Tour’s brand new PGA Satellite Tour - as it was then named - was an unknown quantity.Furthermore, the charismatic 33 year old was from a country which had not yet produced the kind of world beaters which Sir Nick Faldo’s England and Seve Ballesteros’ Spain were churning out at the turn of the decade.
But Rocca changed all that. Within ten years, the man from Bergamo in northern Italy had become one of the most popular and revered figures in the game.As it does to this day for some of the most promising players in golf, the Challenge Tour provided Rocca with the kind of experience and confidence that would prove the solid foundation on which to build a long and successful career.
Rocca won three times on Italian soil during the 1989 Challenge Tour season leading to a third-place finish in the Rankings.He then built on that success the following season on The European Tour, recording a runner-up finish at the Torras Monte Carlo Open, behind Ian Woosnam, as he put his name in lights for the first time on the top tier. Thereafter, it was a steady progression to worldwide fame.
The most successful season of his career came three years later as Rocca claimed the Open de Lyon and Open de France titles, finishing fourth in the European Tour Order of Merit and making history as the first Italian to play in The Ryder Cup.It was the first of three appearances in an event upon which he would leave an indelible mark. By 1995, Rocca was one of Europe’s most influential players and played in every single match as Bernard Gallacher’s team produced one of the most memorable comebacks in the history of The Ryder Cup, beating the United States 14½-13½ at Oak Hill Country Club.
His piece de resistance came at Valderrama in 1997, where he formed a partnership with José María Olazábal which defeated Davis Love III and Phil Mickelson in the opening morning four-balls and disposed of Love III and Fred Couples in the final of Saturday afternoon’s foursomes to give Europe a five point lead entering the final day.The Singles proved one of the greatest moments of his momentous career as Rocca defeated the debutant Tiger Woods, who earlier that year had won his first Masters Tournament, just as the USA mounted a stunning, albeit unsuccessful, comeback.
It was arguably the most significant victory of the day for Europe as Seve Ballesteros’ side edged over the line for a famous 14½ - 13½ win, and Rocca remains the only European to beat this generation’s greatest golfer in the singles format of The Ryder Cup.Rocca’s heroics broke new ground for Italian golf and also for the Challenge Tour. For the first time, every player grinding it out in the second tier had a Ryder Cup star to aspire to follow.
At The Open Championship in 1995, Rocca provided one of the many iconic moments in the tournament’s glorious history when, following a fluffed chip which dropped into St Andrews’ dreaded “Valley of sin”, he proceeded to roll in a wonder-putt from 60 feet to force a play-off with John Daly.Although he eventually finished runner-up to the American, his reaction, falling to his knees and thumping the ground, will forever be remembered in the golfing annals and typified the endearing qualities of one of golf’s great entertainers.
It was those qualities which prompted the Molinari brothers, Edoardo and Francesco, to pick up golf clubs and follow in their idol’s footsteps, as they embarked on their own journey to become European Tour winners and to Ryder Cup glory 15 years later.His success also helped inspire a young Matteo Manassero, who went on to become the youngest champion in European Tour history, winning three times while still a teenager.
Rocca’s rise to prominence not only signalled a sea change in Italian golf, but it is also regarded as one of the most significant success stories in the history of the Challenge Tour.
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