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Molinari Bros flying the flag

Imagine Golf Club's Dermot Gilleece on Italian Trailblazers

Posted Oct 25, 2010 by Dermot Gilleece

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On the Tuesday of tournament week for the Carrolls £10,000 International at Woodbrook in June 1970, Christy O'Connor Snr made a midnight trip to Dublin Airport.  His objective was to collect the stranded Italian professional, Roberto Bernardini, and put him up for the night at his home in the north Dublin suburb of Clontarf.  As things turned out, it was a wasted effort in that Bernardini failed to get into the tournament, having mistakenly absented himself from a pre-qualifying round. 

It would be hard to imagine this happening to a leading Italian professional these days, given the successes of the Molinari brothers, Francesco and Edoardo, and the amazing breakthrough by 17-year-old Matteo Manassero in Spain last Sunday.  Still, it has been a long haul for professional exponents from Italy, even allowing for the splendid career of Costantino Rocca.

Over a period of four decades, starting in the fifties, the flag was flown by only a handful of players.  The first of these was Alfonso Angelini who, despite the loss of toes through frostbite when fighting on the Russian front during World War II, won his native championship on 12 occasions between 1947 and 1969.  Though he never captured his native open, Angelini once lost a play-off to another leading Italian of that period, Ugo Grappasonni.  In fact the pair of them teamed up together to represent their country in the early years of the Canada Cup.

As it happened, Angelini also partnered Bernardini in what had then become the World Cup which was staged at the Ogliata club in Rome in 1968.  They marked the occasion with a splendid performance in finishing third behind winners, Canada, and the formidable American pairing of Lee Trevino and Julius Boros.  Angelini was then 50 and went on to make his final World Cup appearance the following year as Bernardini's partner in Singapore.

The next outstanding Italian professional was Baldovino Dassu who joined paid ranks shortly after capturing the British Youths' title in 1970.  Apart from the distinction of a then record round of 60 in the 1971 Swiss Open, Dassu gained victories in the 1976 Dunlop Masters and the Italian Open, which he won at Is Molas, Sardinia.  A measure of the significance of this victory is that the defending champion was none other than the great Billy Casper, who took the title at Monticello in 1975.  Massimo Manelli became the next home winner of the title in 1980 but there followed no fewer than 26 years before Francesco Molinari's victory in 2006 at Castello di Tolcinasco.

In the meantime, Dassu had a fairly fruitful career on the European Tour and included the Irish Open on his schedule most years from its revival in 1975 until his swansong in 1985.  As it happened, his best performance was in 1975 at Woodbrook where he was tied 18th behind the winner, Christy O'Connor Jnr.

Rocca, of course, became Italy's first Ryder Cup representative, making his debut in 1995 at Oak Hill, where he formed a very effective partnership with Sam Torrance.  That, of course, was the year when, in a dramatic climax to the Open Championship at St Andrews, he sank an outrageous  50-foot putt on the last to get into a play-off for the title against John Daly, which he lost. But two years later, in the Ryder Cup at Valderrama, Rocca gained the distinction of beating Tiger Woods by 4 and 2 to help Europe retain the trophy.

Unlike his current compatriots, Rocca had a tough entry into golf, working long hours in a factory manufacturing polystyrene boxes to help finance his tournament ambitions.  He had earlier earned the equivalent of 20 pence caddying at his local club, Bergamo.

Prior to the arrival of the Molinaris, there was a widespread belief that Rocca had single-handedly launched professional golf in Italy.  On closer inspection, however, it can be seen that a distinguished line had gone before him, including a stranded, 26-year-old who found a roof for the night in the O'Connor home in Dublin.

- Dermot Gilleece

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