Costantino Rocca cannot recall the first time he watched the Masters. "Maybe 1984, 1983," he says. "The year when I put the TV in my house."
In 1979, Rocca and his wife, Antonella, were living in the home he had grown up in, on a hill in Bergamo, Italy, upstairs from his parents. Out his window he could see the Golf Club L'Albenza, a private course for rich people.
He began to caddie at the course when he was seven. He owned one club and would hit every shot with that two-iron. Rocca was 18 when he received his first set of clubs—used—from a member of L'Albenza. By then he had quit school and had already been working three years at a polystyrene factory, running a press, because his family needed the money. By his eighth year on the job, his fingers were curling into a permanent clench. If someone had told him then that he would be playing in the Masters, as he will be this week for the first time, the 37-year-old knows what he would have said: "Impossible. Never."
Rocca played golf once a month if he was lucky. The golf course was like a mirage outside his window, until one day, when he was 24, he heard of an opening at the club for a caddie master. Eventually the club sent him to a golf school in Rome for three months to earn his certification as a head pro. When he returned to Bergamo, he was like a black-and-white movie that had been turned into color. He had gone from a four handicap to scratch and was working outdoors, teaching the game he loved. Three hours of lessons paid him more than a 12-hour day at the factory. He put the television in his house.
Rocca would have stayed happily in Bergamo if not for Tom Linskey, his teacher at the National Golf School of Italy. "He tells me, 'Why don't you play in the European qualifying tournament?' I say, 'Tom, nobody told me I am a good player.' "
Rocca lost and won back his card on the European PGA Tour three times. His wife, who worked in a sportswear factory in Bergamo to support them, persuaded him to keep trying. At home no one understood what he was doing, including his father, who fed his family by working in the quartz mines.
Last year Rocca shot a final-round 63 to win his first European PGA event, in Lyons, France. He cried after the victory and then rushed home to show his father the trophy and the check worth $60,000. "I won for him," he says.
One week later his father died of stomach cancer. Rocca was back on tour the following week. He played every event he could—and won another tournament in France—trying to accumulate enough points to become the first Italian to make the European Ryder Cup team. He became internationally famous, or infamous. On the final day of the competition last September at the Belfry, in England, he missed a three-foot putt on the 17th hole to allow Davis Love III of the U.S. to even their match. Then, on the 18th green, Rocca bogeyed his way to the loss that ended Europe's hopes of reclaiming the Cup. "For one week I didn't sleep," he says.
With more than $675,000 in prize money last year, Rocca could afford to move, but he still lives in his father's house, even if it isn't really big enough for a family of four. When he is depressed, he watches the video of himself missing the putt at the Ryder Cup, because, he says, it makes him work harder. "The factory was a very good experience," says Rocca, "In the factory, if you work 10 hours, you take the money for 10 hours. With golf, if you practice a lot, if you have your head inside the golf course, you take the money home. Golf is the same as the factory."
The Masters rookie is a late bloomer who moved from the factory to the fairway.