Rocco Mediate is a Runner-up with Legs
About 10 days after nearly engineering the upset of a lifetime against Tiger Woods in last year's U.S. Open, Rocco Mediate plopped down against a wall in an airport to get some shuteye.
When he awoke, he says, he couldn't believe his eyes.
"There were about 10 people around me. It was like they were looking at a panda in the zoo," Mediate says. "I thought they might toss me some food or something. They were there just waiting for me to wake up. I looked up, and I went, "Are you guys serious?' I ended up signing a bunch of stuff and talking to them. It was just priceless."
Despite no top-20 finishes in a PGA Tour event this season, Mediate remains a main attraction going into this year's Open, which begins Thursday on the Black Course at Bethpage State Park, just outside New York.
The attention and affection haven't really stopped, Mediate says. "Every week I get, "When are you going to beat up Tiger again?' It's funny what they think. I didn't kick Tiger's butt last year, he kicked mine. I lost. I don't have the trophy; I have a medal.
"It's hard to believe how much that impacted people. It's amazing."
It's equally amazing, and hard to remember, that Mediate's journey to his unlikely showdown with Woods actually started in Columbus, Ohio, 10 days before the Open began. In a 36-hole qualifier for the event, Mediate made a birdie on the penultimate hole to get into an 11-man playoff for seven spots. In 2007, he also had been involved in a playoff in an Open qualifier and had failed to advance. This time, he made a birdie on the first extra hole. He was in.
Then - with his 45-year-old body, balky back and No. 158 world ranking - Everyman almost beat Superman. Woods needed a birdie on the 72nd hole to force an 18-hole playoff and another birdie on the 90th hole to force a sudden-death playoff. Woods finally closed out Mediate with a par on the 91st hole.
To the world, that didn't matter. It was as if Mediate had won.
"I get a lot of people off the golf course saying how much they loved it," Mediate says. "And where they were, especially for Monday's playoff. Remarkable stuff. Some of the ladies I've talked to over the years have come up and said, "I was at Neiman Marcus in the ladies shoe department, and they had the TV on in the back and we were all huddled around.' It's amazing some of the stories that I've heard."
Mediate has received an earful from strangers at supermarkets, gas stations, restaurants, Starbucks and, of course, golf courses. His back has been whacked with thousands of thankful pats. His mailbox has gotten worked over, too, with hundreds of letters arriving in the last 12 months, short and long missives of heartfelt gratitude.
The year hasn't been without anguish, however. Mediate's physical therapist and close friend Cindi Hilfman, whom Mediate credits with restoring his back to good order, has been battling a congenital kidney disease. It's one of the few topics Mediate declines to discuss.
Chatting with the fans
Yet even with that and his ordinary results this season, he has remained accessible and accommodating to fans. They've always been able to identify, and identify with, him.
As one of the first to use a long putter - he was the first player to win a PGA Tour event with a long putter in the Doral-Ryder Open in 1991 - he long ago established himself as an unconventional sort. He still relishes nearly any opportunity to talk while on the course, although his peers also are well aware of his no-nonsense side.
"He's not only one of the nicest guys, but people don't realize how much of a competitor he is," Woods says. "When Rocco's healthy, he's a hell of a player. He was out there talking (at the U.S. Open) and having a great time enjoying the atmosphere. But when it's time to hit the shot, he goes into his own little world. After he does hit the shot, he comes out and goes, "Blah, blah, blah,' and starts having a good time."
Which makes it seem like his following will only get bigger with the U.S. Open being played so close to the Big Apple.
"People relate to Rocco because he doesn't look like a touring pro. He's the ultimate underdog, and he loves the gallery and loves the fans," says Johnny Miller, NBC golf analyst and 1973 U.S. Open winner. "This year there are so many great story lines (for the Open), and Rocco is one of them. New York is going to love the guy."
The feeling is mutual for Mediate, who has played in a PGA Tour or U.S. Golf Association event in the New York area in each of his 23 full seasons as a pro.
"I love New York fans," he says. "They're crazy, they're loud and they fit right in with me. They'll boo you for a bad shot, go crazy for a good shot. They are always like that, always into it. It's going to be nuts up there if the weather is good. Nuts.
"I know I have a lot more people watching (there). I'd rather have a million people than no people. I hate when there's no people out there. It feels like a practice round.
"And I hate practice rounds."
He hasn't liked his recent play, either. A tie for 22nd in the Quail Hollow Championship in Charlotte seven weeks ago is his best finish in 12 starts.
Bracing for Bethpage
That would indicate a repeat performance at this year's U.S. Open is unlikely. Then again, Mediate knows his mediocre results are reminiscent of last year, when he entered the Open with one top-10 finish in 16 starts.
"Bethpage is going to be a tremendously, unbelievably good test of golf, as it always is," he says. "And my favorite type of golf is that penalizing stuff that if you're not precise or in the fairway, you don't get to play good.
"I love that aspect about the U.S. Open. It actually brings the driver back and makes the fairway become important again."
Last year was the best of times, says Mediate, who has five PGA Tour victories. "It was the golf experience of a lifetime, bar none," he says. "It was five days of controlled, semi-controlled insanity, especially on Monday. I got to test everything I ever learned about golf in that one day. And it turned out almost great. But it turned out pretty good.
"I would love to have an opportunity going into the weekend to compete for that trophy again. And I really do believe, and I know I'm 46 and blah, blah, blah, but I can compete."