November 18, 2013
By Sean Martin, PGATOUR.COM
Alexandre Rocha’s career was in question when he heard the news.
The International Olympic Committee announced in October 2009 that the 2016 Olympics would be held in Rocha’s home country, Brazil, and golf would be part of the schedule for the first time in more than a century.
The opportunity to represent his country in the world’s largest sporting event motivated Rocha to rebuild his game after a trying season on the European Tour.
“I was battling some back injuries and thinking about what to do next,” said Rocha, who will turn 36 on Thursday. “When the (Olympic) news came, I thought it was a great opportunity to revamp my game.”
Rocha will represent his country for the first time as a professional this week, in a tournament meant to mirror the upcoming Olympic event. This week's ISPS HANDA World Cup of Golf was reverted back to stroke play -- a team's score is the combined 72-hole score of its two representatives -- because of the Olympics. An individual prize also is available this week, as are Official World Golf Ranking points. Teams competed in alternate shot and best-ball in the previous format.
Rocha will represent Brazil alongside Adilson da Silva. Rocha learned Oct. 28 that he was in the field after another player withdrew. He’ll compete against the likes of Adam Scott, Jason Day, Matt Kuchar, Graeme McDowell and Vijay Singh starting Thursday at Royal Melbourne Golf Club in Australia.
“I’m really excited about it,” Rocha said. “It will be great preparation for the Olympics.”
Rocha’s focus since late 2009 has been on the 2016 Olympics, where he hopes to compete in front of a hometown crowd. After the Olympic announcement, Rocha changed his equipment, instructor and management team, all with an eye on the quadrennial competition.
“If I was going to start over, I was going to start over from scratch,” said Rocha, a first-team All-American at Mississippi State in 2000.
He played just a handful of events in 2010 – including the Honda Classic (T-59), which he Monday qualified for --- as he revamped his game. His focus was on the fall, and PGA TOUR q-school. He tied for 22nd there to earn his first PGA TOUR card. He regained his card at the following year’s q-school, then played last season on the Web.com Tour.
“(The Olympics) really focused his perspective on the long term,” his instructor, Jason Birnbaum, said. “It’s definitely a motivation.”
The Olympics already influence Rocha's practice and preparation. Birnbaum’s instruction is more technical now so that Rocha doesn’t have to worry about mechanics in 2016. Rocha said he will be more selective with his schedule in the coming years, playing less often but at courses that better suit his game, in order to avoid burnout.
He spent most of this season in the top 25 of the Web.com Tour money list, but a poor finish cost him his PGA TOUR card for the 2013-14 season. He had top-five finishes in three of his first seven starts of 2013, but didn’t have a top-10 finish the rest of the year. He finished 34th on the Regular Season money list, missing the top 25 (and his TOUR card) by $11,922. He failed to earn his card via the Web.com Tour Finals after finishing no better than T-18 in the four events.
Having the Olympics in the distance has helped Rocha endure his late-season struggles in 2013.
“It’s hard to play at a high level for a long period of time,” Birnbaum said. “When you’re playing at a high level, it’s easy to be focused and motivated. The hardest part is when you’re in a lull. Having the Olympics helps him get through a lull because in the grand scheme, now is not the time things need to be good.”
Rocha, who lives in Florida, has played once between the Web.com Tour Championship and World Cup. He returned to his homeland to play PGA TOUR Latinoamerica’s Brazil Open; he finished third, two shots outside of a playoff eventually won by the United States’ Ryan Blaum. It was Rocha’s first time competing in Rio de Janeiro – site of the 2016 Olympics – as a professional. He drove by the Olympic golf course, which is under construction, and saw the infrastructure being built in advance of the Olympics and next year’s soccer World Cup.
Rocha’s game also is under construction, being built up so it can reach greater heights on sport’s biggest stage.