By John L. Pitts/NEMS Daily Journal
BETHESDA, Md. – Former Mississippi State All-American Alex Rocha, preparing for his first tee shot in a major tournament, wasn’t feeling confident on Thursday morning.
Far from it.
“I’ve never, ever, ever been so nervous in my life,” Rocha, from Brazil, told reporters when his first round at the U.S. Open was complete. “The only thing I could feel was my heartbeat go off my chest but nothing else.”
Rocha settled down sufficiently to shoot a 2-under 69, putting himself in a surprising tie for fourth place at the season’s second major. He’ll tee off today at 6 a.m. CDT at Congressional Country Club.
Rory McIroy is the leader after a 65, with Y.E. Yang and Masters champion Charl Schwartzel at 68. (Read more, Page 5B).
But the biggest surprise on the leaderboard is Rocha, a 33-year-old PGA Tour rookie who nearly quit playing two years ago. He’s in a five-way tie at 2-under, a group that includes Sergio Garcia, who has five career top-4 finishes in majors.
Garcia is two years younger than Rocha, who said “something clicked” after his first tee shot.
“I was walking down to the hole thinking, ‘You just got done with the worst part, the most difficult part was that first tee shot,’ and for whatever reason that really calmed me down.”
Rocha made the turn at even par – he started the day at No. 10 – and had a bogey on his 11th hole of the day before closing with three birdies over his last six holes.
“The bogeys came before the birdies did, but it didn’t do anything to my confidence,” Rocha said. “I kept on trucking.”
Will Rocha have any trouble sleeping after that first round?
“I have an 11-month-old baby, and yes, I’ll sleep very well tonight,” he told reporters.
But he acknowledged that today’s round will be a test to see if he can deal with the pressure of being on the leaderboard.
“I haven’t coped well under pressure on the regular Tour events,” he said. “So maybe this is an opportunity for me to really learn … how to handle a heavy pressure.”
In the 10 PGA events he’s played this season, Rocha has made the cut in five of them with a pair of 50th-place finishes. He’s won $57,593 in 2011 and is 202nd in FedEx Cup points.
Rocha, who could barely speak English when he arrived in Starkville, won a couple of Brazilian national championships before turning pro in 2000. He has 10 professional wins, but none on the PGA Tour, which he joined this season after tying for 22nd at the annual “Q School” tournament.
Until Tuesday, Rocha had never set foot on the Congressional course.
“It’s a great golf course. And it’s a very, very hard golf course,” Rocha said. “It’s fair as can be. You hit a good shot and you’ll be rewarded with a par, the occasional birdie. If you hit a bad shot, you pay and that’s how it should be, this is the U.S. Open.”
One of Rocha’s playing partners, Andres Gonzales, was also in his first major.
“So as we’re walking down the fairway there on 10th, I said, ‘You know, no matter what happens for the rest of the day, we’ve accomplished today that no one can ever take away from us forever, which is the fact that on our very first championship golf shot, being probably one of the hardest on the course, we both hit incredible shots. That’s going to stay with us for the rest of our lives. …’
“Five hours later, and I’m sitting in front of you having shot under par on my very first major championship, and the U.S. Open at that. Nobody is ever going to take that away from me. No matter what happens for the rest of the week, this is something I’m going to take with me forever.”
Rocha made the field as one of four qualifiers at a New Jersey sectional.
Contributing: The Associated Press, ASAP Sports Transcripts.