I doubt that anything will ever beat sitting in the stands at St Andrews as a 19-year-old watching Seve Ballesteros hole his putt to win the 1984 Open Championship, then producing one of the most joyous celebrations ever witnessed in sport.
A close second to that memorable experience, though, was undoubtedly standing at the back of the same green on the Old Course, this time in a working capacity, when the Italian, Costantino Rocca, produced another iconic moment in golf’s oldest major 11 years later.
Needing a birdie at the 72nd hole to tie with John Daly, Rocca fluffed his second shot, seeing it topple back off the green into the Valley of Sin. “A cruel game,” opined Peter Alliss, the BBC’s Voice of Golf, in his commentary.
Rocca’s agony turned to joy, though, as he rolled in his 30-foot putt. His reaction was to lie down on the bank in front of him, bury his face for a few seconds and hammer the hallowed turf with his fists in celebration.
Given the emotion that was drained out of him, it was perhaps inevitable that Rocca lost the subsequent four-hole play-off, taking four shots more than Daly. However, even arriving back in St Andrews in the dark on Sunday night, the 61-year-old knew he was in a place that will forever be linked with his name.
“Every time I’ve come back since that moment is emotional,” acknowledged the 61-year-old, who is looking forward to renewing his rivalry with Daly when the pair tee up in the first Senior Open Championship to be staged at St Andrews in July. “When you stand there in front of the clubhouse and look down the 18th and first hole, you breathe in the real heart of golf.”
Rocca recorded five European Tour victories, including the 1996 Volvo PGA Championship, beating Paul Lawrie and Nick Faldo by two shots. He also beat Tiger Woods 4&2 in the singles in the 1997 Ryder Cup at Valderrama, yet few people remember that.
“I’m the most famous runner-up in the world,” he claimed, smiling. “When I go to America, people remember that I beat Tiger but most people remember the putt. I never thought that coming second in a major would be something I’d be remembered for, but I suppose I did something special that day – and it became perhaps more famous than if I’d actually won the tournament ahead of John Daly.”
Using the same putter and wearing a dark sweater similar to the one he had on 23 years ago, Rocca yesterday attempted to recreate that famous putt. He had 22 attempts, shaving the hole with the last one and coming close on another three occasions but it is clearly more difficult than he made it look back then.
“I remember on the 18th tee I turned to my caddie and said ‘if I hit driver and put the ball on the green I could make two’,” recalled Rocco, a two-time winner in the Senior ranks. “I knew I had to make birdie but I went for the eagle because I felt positive after the shot I had played from the road at the side of 17.
“But the ball bounced on a divot and went left. So I tried to chip in and tried too hard to get it perfect, but it wasn’t in my mind to settle for par. I could only think eagle or birdie. When I hit the putt and saw it go in I thought someone from above must have helped me.
“When I hit the putt it was going left of the hole and I said to myself ‘it’s perfect’ as it turned towards the hole. Later in my career I did the same thing in a tournament in Japan and the locals said ‘St Andrews’ – even they remembered it. It’s a big moment in my career.”
Part of another festival of world-class golf in Scotland this summer, the Senior Open presented by Rolex is proving a box office hit. “Ticket sales are going extremely well, ahead of where we’ve ever been at this time of year,” reported David MacLaren, head of the Staysure Tour, the new branding for the European Senior Tour.
The presence of players such as Tom Watson in the field is helping in that respect. Scottish fans will also be keen to see if Colin Montgomerie can add to his haul of three Senior major titles in an event that will have the evergreen Bernhard Langer as the defending champion.
“Sir Nick Faldo has entered, which is fantastic,” added MacLaren. “So far promotion of the event is around rivalries and we are looking forward to looking to maybe one or two surprise entrants. There are players, like Hale Irwin, who wouldn’t necessarily come over to these shores at all, but the lure of St Andrews is phenomenal.
“Last year [at Royal Porthcawl] we had 34 major or senior major winners, and I think we’ll beat that this year. Whether it’s Tom Watson, Nick Faldo or Bernhard Langer, some of those legends we know will be here already and there might be one or two surprises.”