By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 2, 2008
For most of the past two weeks, Rocco Mediate has been basking in the afterglow of the finest U.S. Open performance of his injury-plagued career. But last month's popular runner-up at Torrey Pines was not at all pleased to hear a fan at the Buick Open bellow "Tiger who?" as he walked off the 17th green last Saturday in Grand Blanc, Mich.
"I said to him, 'You mean Tiger Woods, the 2008 U.S. Open champion, don't you?' " Mediate said yesterday, two days before he will tee off in the first round of the AT&T National at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda. "You have to keep telling people that because he's the U.S. Open champion. It's just respect."
Mediate lost in a 19-hole sudden-death Monday playoff in what is considered one of history's most compelling U.S. Opens. But he also said it was important to remember that "I did not win the tournament. Respect has to be shown for the fact that Tiger Woods did. He beat me. I'm not taking very kindly to any negative remarks about Tiger. Somebody said, 'You hurt his leg,' and that's not even funny. I really don't want to hear that."
Instead, Mediate has mostly been hearing about how much the American public was enthralled by the sight of a 45-year-old golfer with a chronic bad back and, truth be told, his own sore right knee, going shot-for-shot against arguably the greatest player of all time. Woods had to make a 12-foot birdie putt on that Sunday just to get into the playoff, and they were still tied after 18 playoff holes during which Mediate overcame an early three-shot deficit to force one last sudden-death hole.
A gregarious native of western Pennsylvania with five PGA Tour victories, Mediate finished tied for 28th last week at the Buick. He said people approached him every day saying: " 'My mother doesn't watch golf, or my brother hates golf, but they watched every minute of that playoff.' They told me they stayed home from work on Monday or they watched it at their desks on their office computer. It's incredible, really. . . .
"Maybe some people were expecting him to shoot 71 and me shoot 76 or 77, like two or three shots a side. But I thought I could do it. I wanted to put my stuff against his stuff. I wanted to give them a show, and I didn't want to get blown out. And I knew if I shot around par, I had a chance to win, and I can do that on a U.S. Open golf course."
Both men shot even-par 71 after 18 holes that memorable Monday before Woods parred the first hole of sudden death and Mediate made bogey.
Fred Funk was among the millions watching on television, and the Takoma Park native who is playing at Congressional this week said yesterday that Mediate had the ideal personality to deal with such a highly charged atmosphere.
"He's real upbeat, carefree and just had the perfect attitude to deal with all the pressures that were put on him, self-imposed and the outside pressures of playing that well and being in the limelight of the U.S. Open," Funk said. "That's a huge deal. Rocco made it fun to watch. It allowed him to have the media fall in love with him, the public fall in love with him and really enjoy all the drama and everything."
Said Mediate: "I went into it knowing it was going to be the most amazing day of golf in my life. I mean, what else as a golfer could you ever want, playing against the number one player in the world at the course he grew up on? How could you not eat that up -- the sights, the smells, him trying to beat me, me trying to beat him, just both of us enjoying every minute of it?
"And you know, I didn't see him make one single fist pump all day. I know he wanted to kill me, and I'd like to think if it had been anyone else, he might have been pumping his fist. He made some beautiful putts, but he never changed his demeanor. It was a very gentlemanly match between us. I would have loved to have won it, but no matter what, I could win 10 Opens, but nothing will ever come close to the feelings I experienced playing against him that day."
Mediate had been fortunate to get into the U.S. Open in the first place, surviving an 11-man playoff in the Ohio qualifier for the event. And 18 months earlier, there were times he wondered if he would ever be able to compete at the game's highest level, mostly because of a chronically balky back.
But in February 2007, Mediate was introduced by a mutual friend to Cindi Hilfman, a Los Angeles-based physical therapist who specialized in working with low-handicap amateur golfers and a few professional players suffering from physical problems.
"Basically, he'd been medically mismanaged like crazy," Hilfman said in an interview yesterday. "He'd been going to chiropractors and he'd been over-manipulated, and everyone kept missing his disk herniation. We did a series of three-shot epidurals, and he's had a great outcome. Initially, we thought he'd need surgery, but the epidurals took care of the pain and we stopped the chiropractor.
"I trained with him every week. It's not easy. We've done some weight-loss things, modified his diet, and he works out daily. He requires one and a half to two hours of manual therapy and stretching every day. And he's 45 years old. It's hard. But he was in very little back pain at the Open. He also has a meniscus problem in his right knee, but he felt beautiful all week long. He really did."
Ironically, only a few weeks before Torrey Pines, Mediate decided to finally leave his longtime management company, Gaylord Sports in Scottsdale, Ariz., because he was not pleased with its marketing and endorsement efforts on his behalf.
"It was one of those things where both sides wanted a fresh look," David Yates, a Gaylord agent, said in a telephone interview yesterday. "He wasn't happy with some of the things we were doing. But at the time, he was a tough sell. He was like 185th on the money list two weeks before the Open. Players get frustrated, and sometimes they need a change, whether it's equipment, a caddie, their management. It's the nature of the professional athlete. They never make a bad swing. It's always the club or the ball. It's never them."
Mediate's business affairs have always been handled by one of his best friends, Pittsburgh-based Frank Zoracky, and that relationship remains intact. He now has signed with another agent, Sarasota, Fla.-based Tom Elliott, and Zoracky said yesterday both he and Mediate have been inundated with offers from endorsements to book deals to appearance fees at international events.
"He's had a phenomenal number of opportunities, a lot of things we never anticipated, and we're in the process of filtering through everything to see what we'll do," Zoracky said. "You had the greatest player of all time against a 45-year-old man who took this thing right to the limit. People have really responded to that story.
"Rocco and I have been together for 23 years, and trust me, what you see with Rocco is what you get. He's a regular kind of guy and he keeps it all in perspective because he's been through everything in his career."
Clearly though, no one could possibly have enjoyed it more than Mediate himself.
"I always say Tiger brings the best out of you or the worst out of you when you play against him," he said last week at the Buick Open. "I always want to tell my kids that I went up against Tiger, and this is what I did. I beat him in Phoenix a few years back, and we already had the coolest playoff ever.
"It's an opportunity. You don't get many opportunities to beat him, and you very rarely do beat him. But you've got to get opportunities and then you relish every second of it. I did, every second I had on that Monday. I got to see what I had against him, and that was the most fun I've ever had in my life."