Daly vs. Rocca: An oral history of the most improbable British Open showdown ever
This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of GOLF Magazine.
They were consummate outsiders. Neither looked like an athlete; both struggled to be taken seriously even as golfers. John Daly, 29, and Costantino Rocca, 38, were not favorites to win the 1995 British Open at St. Andrews, yet it all came down to them, in a duel that remains vivid 20 years later.
Daly, nearly three years removed from his storied 1991 PGA Championship win at Crooked Stick, was a recovering alcoholic who’d walked off the course midround at the 1994 Kapalua International, for which he was suspended from the Tour. In 1995, he had no top-10 finishes going into the Open, where he was a 66-to-1 long shot to win. He was popping Prozac and bingeing on sugar, and he would gorge on Otis Spunkmeyer chocolate-chocolate-chip muffins at the Old Course.
Rocca was a jovial journeyman who’d worked in a box factory in his youth. He never watched the Open on TV as a kid in Italy; there were no big-name Italian touring professionals to stoke his dreams. He didn’t make the European Tour until he was 32, but just four years later he was on the 1993 European Ryder Cup team. It ended badly. In Sunday singles, Rocca three-putted 17 and bogeyed 18 to lose to Davis Love III, and the U.S. won the Cup 15-13. Rocca was pilloried.
Battling fierce winds off the North Sea, Daly and Rocca fought to the end of regulation play, then went four more holes beyond that. They hit desperate, wildly unlikely shots — from the ridiculous to the sublime, from the Valley of Sin to the heights of redemption.
Here’s how it all went down, according to those who were there to watch it unfold.
A month before the Open, Daly misses the cut in Hartford. Sitting in the locker room, he opens up to Donnie Crabtree, his best friend since boyhood and personal assistant from 1993 to 2003.
Donnie Crabtree: “He said, “I don’t want to play until the British.” The next week was the FedEx St. Jude Classic, John’s hometown tournament — he had a house there at TPC Southwind. I knew he’d get flak for not playing, but I agreed with him. If John’s not into it, bad things happen.
“He withdrew from the St. Jude. He came to my house — I had a condo in Fayetteville, Arkansas — and he practiced at the Paradise Valley Golf & Athletic Club. It was where the University of Arkansas golf team practiced, so he knew the course and the pro, and he knew people wouldn’t bother him. John came with [then wife] Paulette and [daughter] Sierra Lynn, who was a few weeks old at the time. He really worked on his game.”
Rocca also struggled in his last start before the Open.
Costantino Rocca: “The week before, I missed the cut in the Scottish Open, but I hit the ball great. I go to the Cardhu distillery Monday [north of St. Andrews] and have a fantastic day in the sunshine and blue sky and a fantastic view of an eagle catching the fish in the lake. I’m so positive.”
Upon arriving in St. Andrews, both players set up camp — Daly at the Old Course Hotel, Rocca at a house in town.
John Daly: “Most people don’t stay at the hotel — it’s about $9,000 a week, which is ridiculous. You could get a house for three or four thousand dollars and get a lot more room and cook your own food.”
Rocca: “I stayed in the house sponsored by Johnnie Walker. I like to cook, and every night I cook for four, eight people — 10 people on Saturday. Spaghetti and steak. Easy cooking!”
Crabtree: “We didn’t go out. We ordered room service every night — spaghetti Bolognese and chocolate ice cream for John — and watched movies.”
Daly fondly remembers the Old Course from the 1993 Dunhill Cup, where in the final, the three-man American team (Daly, Fred Couples and Payne Stewart) beat the English squad (Peter Baker, Nick Faldo, Mark James).
Bud Martin, Daly’s agent: “On Wednesday night it’s still light out, we’re in John’s hotel room, which overlooked the 17th green and the 18th tee, and he stands in front of the window, points and says, “I own that place.” That is so out of character for him. He never talks about how good he is. You can’t even get him to say, ‘I’m a pretty good driver of the ball.'”
Daly shoots an opening 67 to share the first-round lead with Ben Crenshaw, Tom Watson and Mark McNulty.
Martin: “John could carry all the trouble on the Old Course. His miss was left, and he knew if he hooked it on that course, he’d be fine. He could drive it into another fairway and still leave himself a short pitch to the green 12, 13 times a round.”
He misses some fairways, but Daly never misses the stand carrying his beloved Otis Spunkmeyer chocolate-chocolate-chip muffins.
Daly: “I got those right behind number nine. And I couldn’t wait to get there.”
The second round belongs to Arnold Palmer, 65, who soaks up the cheers after the final round of his 35-year Open career. Rocca (69-70) is a shot back, but no one pays him much mind because Daly keeps a share of the lead with a 71. He eats four donuts on the eighth tee and finishes the day with four two-putts from outside 100 feet. He also mesmerizes fans with his usual fireworks (he will drive six par 4s for the week). Postround, playing partner Seve Ballesteros says, “There are no par 5s for him. Well, there are no par 4s for him, either.”
Bob Estes (four back after round two): “Obviously, when you’re playing in really windy conditions, length is huge, especially into the wind, but I don’t think it was that as much as John’s right-to-left ball flight. Mark Brooks was one of the shortest hitters out there, but he moved it right to left [and tied for third]. All of the trouble at St. Andrews is to the right.”
With the breeze picking up, Daly struggles Saturday. On 17 he pulls his 1-iron tee shot into the rough and makes a double bogey. On 18 his drive misses left and long of the green but kicks backward off the steps to the R&A Clubhouse and comes to rest on the first tee. He pitches to within eight feet of the pin, makes the birdie putt for 73 and is four behind Michael Campbell and two behind Rocca, who carded another 70.
Crabtree: “We got a break when it rolled up the steps and back down. We thought it was out of bounds. John was confident that night, even though he was four back. He still felt like he had a chance.”
Daly falls asleep at 3:30 a.m. He wolfs down five chocolate-filled croissants and some eggs before his afternoon final round tee time. He starts hot and takes the lead with his third birdie of the day at the eighth hole. Others struggle in the gale-force winds.
Estes: “I three-putted four times. It was so windy that it was hard to keep your balance, and John’s got a lower center of gravity than me. On the 12th hole, a drivable par 4, I had the driver out, and my ball on the tee was quivering, like it would fall off. I wasn’t sure I could get the club back and through and not miss, so I hit a 2-iron off the deck.”
Daly: “I never really lit up the course. Nobody did. It was hard. Sunday was brutal.”
Sure enough, Daly, too, hits a rough patch, three-putting 16 and hitting his second shot into the Road Hole bunker on 17. When he and his caddie, Greg Rita, arrive to see his ball lying against the bunker’s sod wall, they see no good options. But Ernie Els — on his way to a 75 — has hit his ball into the same spot, and he goes in first.
Ernie Els: “I must have three-putted 13 times, and I was so far out of it I just said, ‘Here, let me go first and show you the way out.'”
Daly: “When Ernie got out, I saw it could be done. It helped a lot. Luckily, I had a 64-degree Wilson wedge that week. I aimed way left and the club went into the sod wall and jarred my hand, but I got out. Made a good 5.”
Daly pars 18 for a 71 and leads by one. “I hope that’s enough,” he tells Crabtree. Playing with Campbell in the last group, Rocca sends his shot onto the road at 17, but he hits down on it with his putter and the ball hops into the air, lands on the green and rolls up cozy to the pin for par.
Rocca: “I most remember 17, when I putted the ball off the road to about one meter from the hole. It gave me the chance. I told my caddie, “If I put the ball on the 18th green, I’ll make 2. Or 3.” In my mind there is no 4.”
Needing to birdie the 354-yard 18th to force a playoff, Rocca’s wind-aided tee shot starts at the green but veers left, leaving a tricky pitch. He chili-dips it. The crowd groans. Rocca watches his ball roll into the Valley of Sin. He smacks the top of his head three times.
Paulette hugs Daly; Crabtree and caddie Rita high five. But after composing himself, Rocca steps up to his 65-foot birdie putt and jars it, forcing a playoff. The fans erupt as Rocca drops face first to the ground and pounds the sod in ecstasy.
Martin: “John was watching on a monitor under the grandstand on 18, and I was behind the camera that was filming him. As soon as the putt went in, all the blood left his face.”
Rocca: “I see him sometimes, John’s face and his wife’s face, the moment I hole the putt. [Laughs] I wasn’t thinking leave it short, leave it long — I have in my mind I have to hole it.”
Daly: “To this day, I still don’t know how far it was. It would’ve gone by a good six or seven feet. Good for TV! We thought it was over.”
In the four-hole playoff, Rocca three-putts the first hole, No. 1, and Daly goes two up with a 35-foot birdie putt at the second, No. 2. Rocca finds the Road Hole bunker at the third hole, No. 17, and takes three shots to get out on the way to a triple bogey. Daly eventually wins the playoff 15 to 19.
Crabtree: “Going into the playoff, I looked at John’s face, and he was like, “Okay, let’s go.” Rocca just looked done, like he was relieved and happy just to have gotten to that point.”
Rocca: “When we start the playoff, I’m not emotional. I think I can do it. The problem is I make three putts on the first hole, and on the second he makes a putt. My only chance is on 17 [the third playoff hole], if he misses the drive. But he hit a very long drive, and he has a wedge second shot, and I have 6-iron, and it goes in the bunker. After two [failed tries to get out of the sand] I wanted to throw my ball out. [Laughs] I did my best.”
That night, Daly eats chocolate ice cream out of the Claret Jug as he and his crew celebrate at the hotel.
Crabtree: “I had the Claret Jug, which comes in this big suitcase, and at the end of the night Bud and I were walking back to our room, on the same floor as John’s. We ran into Arnold Palmer, who absolutely knew what was in the suitcase. He said congratulations and talked about how happy he was for John.”
A week later, Daly and Rocca fly to Holland to play the Dutch Open. Daly’s length has become legend, as has his prodigious appetite.
Rocca: “The hotel was full of ice cream — maybe five kilo or six kilo of Häagen-Dazs — for us. When he arrives, in reception, they say, “John, we have ice cream!” But I’m supposed to get ice cream, too. He takes the whole box to his room and leaves with me nothing! The next day I say, “John, where is my ice cream?” He says, “Oh, it was for you, too?” He beat me, and he ate my ice cream! [Laughs] That’s okay.”
Rocca went on to defeat Tiger Woods in singles, helping Europe win the 1997 Ryder Cup. He still lives in Italy and teaches golf at his academy. He plays European senior tour events, designs courses, and has inspired other Italian pros, including brothers Edoardo and Francesco Molinari.
Daly, four times divorced, has three children and is engaged. After a falling out with Crabtree from 2003 to 2008, Daly says they’ve buried the hatchet. Crabtree says they’ve never been as close as they were. Martin is still Daly’s agent. Caddie Rita died in 2010. Daly, still a lover of sweets, drinks five gallons of chocolate milk per week.