It really is one of the most remarkable comebacks in sporting history. The end, after all, seemed nigh for Tiger Woods when he could barely put one foot in front of the other without feeling pain before pulling out of the Dubai Desert Classic at the beginning of last year.
That he has since returned following spinal fusion surgery to scale the world rankings, contend again in majors, secure a seventh Ryder Cup appearance and now return to winning ways in the Tour Championship truly is astonishing, though not so much of a surprise in the eyes of one player who has locked horns with Woods in that event in the past.
“I think when Tiger stopped playing they say he is finished,” said Italian Costantino Rocca. “But, in my opinion, no. Because I played three or four times with him and he never laid down. If he is three down, he want to lose two down. That is the spirit of his fight. That he is back is very important for us and the whole game.”
Rocca, pictured, can lay claim to being the only player to have come out on top against Woods in a singles clash in the Ryder Cup. In 1997 at Valderrama, the man from Bergamo beat Woods 4&2 on the last day as a side captained by Seve Ballesteros eked out a 14.5-13.5 victory.
“I think I was the only one on the team who didn’t want to play Tiger because I know he is very strong, but when it happens you have to do it,” recalled Rocca. “I love to watch him, he play fantastic. But, at the same time, I play my game. Against Tiger you cannot play his game. You must play your game.
“But you’re lucky because every time you’re playing the second shot first. When you put your second shot close, you put him under pressure, even Tiger. That round I played really, really well. To win was very important because if I lose for the team it is not good.”
Despite the fact they have not won on European soil since 1993, the Americans are favourites for the match at Le Golf National in France. “Even at Valderrama, they said we don’t have a chance. But we won,” said Rocca, sounding a rallying call. “Every player can hit the ball fantastic in US team. But so do we. Players have to approach it like it is their first Ryder Cup. They have to fight all the way. Every Ryder Cup is not the same. It changes. There are periods when new players come in.
“We have the No 1 (Justin Rose) in the world now. We cannot say we are not strong enough. If you feel you are not strong, then you are beaten before you start. You go to war, you fight. The Ryder Cup is the most important event of your life, apart from say majors. I hope we do good.”
Rocca played in three matches, holding the record for most appearances by an Italian. He will share that with Francesco Molinari after this week. Somewhat in the shadows when he played in 2010 and 2012, Molinari is anything but on this occasion as the Open champion.
“Francesco went to America in the last few years,” observed Rocca of his compatriot taking his game to a new level, illustrated when he held off Woods, Rory McIlroy, Jordan Spieth and Justin Rose to get his hands on the Claret Jug at Carnoustie. “It was a good choice, because in America if you don’t putt well you don’t win much. He always hit the ball fantastic. His chipping and putting, now having been in America is fantastic, too.”
What role will Molinari be handed by his captain, Thomas Bjorn? “I’m not sure,” said Rocca. “Thomas is Thomas (laughing). One time he is the king of everyone and maybe like a cat another time. The captain is important, but the most important people are the players.
“If I don’t feel I like to play with you, I can tell the captain. You have to feel good. The vice captains have to watch and be the eyes and ears. It is all team work. It is important to make the players feel valued.”
Italy is next up after France to stage the biennial event on this side of the Atlantic. Keith Pelley, the European Tour’s chief executive, secured a mega-money deal for the 2022 match at Marco Simone in Rome. Despite lots of scare stories, it appears it is all systems go.
“It’s starting now with the course and hopefully we have enough time,” said Rocca. “We don’t have to change everything. We have to play one event before it as a test. For us, it is very important. In three days of the Ryder Cup, we can show the world all that is good in Italy.”
Count Costantino Rocca in that goodness.