PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. (AP) — Alexandre Rocha nearly stopped playing golf last year, until two moves by the International Olympic Committee changed his mind.
And that’s just one tiny part of his unbelievable story.
The world’s 711th-ranked player – who needed to survive a pre-qualifier, then a Monday qualifier, then a playoff, just to get into the field at PGA National this week – shot a 4-under 66 on Thursday, one shot back of Nathan Green and Michael Connell after the first round on a windy and unseasonably cool first day at the Honda Classic.
“I needed a day like today like, you have no idea,” Rocha said. “And it was for nobody. It’s for myself.”
The Honda is only his fourth PGA Tour event; the last was in 2003, and he’s never made a cut. He lost his European Tour card last year and got status earlier this year on the Asian Tour, only after deciding that he wanted to continue playing golf for a living.
The IOC had much to do with that. First, they awarded the 2016 Summer Olympics to his native Brazil, then added golf to that program. Rocha – who didn’t know a word of English when he arrived at Mississippi State – took those moves as signs of what he was supposed to do, so he recommitted to the game with hopes of finally making something happen.
After three straight birdies to open Thursday’s round, something was happening.
And plenty of luck was on his side, too. He pulled his drive into a row of houses on the seventh hole, got a fortunate bounce off something and made par. He knocked in 30-foot par-saving putts that he was just trying to get close, saying bogey was a good score. Somehow, he never lost composure.
“I am surprised at how calm, how relaxed and how confident I felt all day,” Rocha said. “That surprises me. I am not surprised about the fact that I can play proper golf. I’ve been working at it, and hard. And it has come out of me in the past before. I’m very satisfied with it, yes. Am I surprised to be in a good position on the leaderboard? Yes. But I wasn’t shocked, you know, to see myself playing well.”
Only two men did any better.
Green’s card was mistake-free, five birdies, no bogeys, and a mere 25 putts. Not bad, considering he was the other guy in a group with major champions Vijay Singh and Padraig Harrington.
“You don’t like embarrassing yourself in front of a crowd,” Green said. “It can also help you, and I think that’s sort of what it did today, playing with those guys. You definitely feed off them a little bit I think, just how calm they keep themselves.”
It was a day of redemption for former Mississippi State players.
Connell – like Rocha, a former Bulldog – was a PGA Tour rookie in 2006, making the cut in four of 22 events. He never got back on the tour until this year, got a kickstart with an eagle on the par-5 third hole, and caught Green for the lead with a birdie at the par-3 17th.
Oliver Wilson and Camilo Villegas also were tied for second with Rocha at 4 under.
Singh, Bubba Watson and D.J. Trahan were all two shots back after shooting 67. If there was a surprise out of that group, it might have been Singh. Once the world’s No. 1 player, and still ranked No. 5 less than two years ago, Singh’s ranking has since fallen to No. 35.
“I know I’m not supposed to be there,” Singh said. “The bottom line is, you play well, it’s going to be OK. If you play well, the ranking is going to fix itself.”
Y.E. Yang had a lot to fix on Thursday.
Yang at the Honda has been an all-or-nothing proposition. He was last after 54 holes in 2008 and played the final round that year by himself in less than two hours, then was a surprise winner at PGA National last year – giving him a boost that he said helped carry him to a breakthrough year and the PGA Championship.
Maybe his title defense at Whistling Straits will go better than his defense at the Honda. Hard to imagine it going worse.
Yang started with a bogey, followed by a quintuple-bogey, leaving him 6 over after two holes and the downward spiral never got turned around. Yang wound up shooting 79, leaving him 14 shots off the pace.
For him, it was a day to forget.
Not for Rocha.
He’ll come back Friday afternoon in position to finally make a cut, which for him might be as significant as a victory. He’s so far down in the world rankings that if he was a Villegas brother, he’d be third in the family – Camilo’s younger brother Manuel actually checks in three spots ahead of Rocha.
Rocha was a first-team All-American in 2000 for Mississippi State, joining, among others, Paul Casey, Luke Donald, Lucas Glover, Charles Howell III, Matt Kuchar and Bryce Molder. He points to what that group has done professionally as some proof that he’s underachieved.
Not on Thursday, he couldn’t.
How much did he need one good day?
“Like my life depended on it, really,” Rocha said.