By EDDIE PELLS
SAN DIEGO – Rocco Mediate, professional golfer.
Rocco Mediate, everyman.
Rocco Mediate … sports writer?
He played all three to stunningly good effect Saturday at the U.S. Open, never more hilariously than when he tucked himself into a gaggle of reporters, post-round, while the leader, Tiger Woods, was fielding questions.
“Mr. Woods, Mr. Woods, Mr. Woods, are you insane? Are you out of your mind?” Mediate said.
Yes, the guy gets it, which means he won’t take any offense to the notion that he has almost no chance Sunday, even though he played well enough in the third round to technically put himself in contention.
A 45-year-old trying to turn an accomplished career into something more, Mediate guesses he hit one really bad shot all day. But all that got him was a round of 1-over 72 and a two-shot deficit to the world’s best player, and best closer.
Woods has never lost a major when he’s had the lead going into the last round.
Mediate has never won a major.
“You never know,” he said. “But it’ll take something crazy.”
If something crazy is to happen, though, Mediate will have to answer this troubling question: What more can he possibly do?
He came into the toughest test in golf knowing he’d have to hit lots of fairways: Accuracy from long distances, which is where Mediate often hits his approaches from, is nearly impossible from the tangly rough at Torrey Pines. Check. He hit nine of 14.
He came in knowing he’d have to hit greens from those fairways, because scrambling isn’t exactly what you want to be doing at a U.S. Open. Check. He hit 15 of 18.
Avoiding huge numbers? He did that everywhere but No. 15, where he made a double-bogey and had the gallery looking like a bunch of tennis fans – watching Mediate go from one side of the green, to the other, then back again before shot No. 6 finally dropped. After leading all day, it was the double-bogey that finally dropped him down the leaderboard.
“I made one little mistake and I got ripped. That’s what the Open does to you,” he said.
But he accomplished another goal – coming back from adversity, making a birdie on No. 17 and finishing with a par to stay within site of Woods.
Woods played one group in front of him and Mediate can chalk up another moral victory for not getting rattled from hearing the crowd roar again and again as the world’s best player put on one of his best shows ever.
“Nine times out of 10, yeah, he’s probably going to kick my butt,” Mediate said. “It’s that one time you’re looking for.”
Mediate will not get what he really wanted, which is to play in the final group with Woods on Sunday. Lee Westwood, at 2 under, gets that honor.
But the fact that Mediate doesn’t shy from that challenge, that he acknowledges the reality of this game, this week, his career, is what makes him a fan favorite – an almost certain bet to be covering the sport for TV when he decides to hang it up.
“I think it’s because I remind people of themselves,” Mediate said. “I’m just an everyday person who’s a bit on the crazy side.”
He has been in the hunt in these things before. Two years ago at the Masters, he actually was tied for the lead in the final round.
“But my back-back went bye-bye in the car that day,” Mediate said.
The injury effectively gave him no chance, and when he dumped three balls into Rae’s Creek on No. 12 to make a 10, the rest of the day was elementary.
He is not currently dealing with any of the back pain that has been the biggest hurdle over a nearly 25-year career that has included five victories, around $14 million in earnings but nothing close to a signature win.
He’s been playing better of late, finishing sixth in the Memorial, winning one of the seven final spots in an 11-man playoff at the U.S. Open qualifier, then coming to San Diego to play in what he calls his favorite tournament.
He knows he doesn’t have many chances left like this.
“I’d like to play in three or four or five more Opens. I’d love to,” he said. “But to get close to the lead, it doesn’t happen every time, especially when you’re 45-and-a-half years old.”
Which is what has made this week so sweet so far.
Or bittersweet? Even he knows how it’s probably going to turn out.