FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – Rocco Mediate arrived at Bethpage Black’s driving range Tuesday moments after Tiger Woods left, settling in one spot away from where the reigning U.S. Open champion practiced.
Talk about fitting.
Mediate will forever be remembered as being right beside Woods at the 2008 U.S. Open, where not even a mano-a-mano 18-hole Monday playoff was enough to break their tie and the world’s No. 1 player ultimately prevailed on the 91st hole.
“The greatest memory of my golfing career,” Mediate said.
He’s relived that memory every day since. The 46-year-old Pennsylvanian gave Woods all he wanted at Torrey Pines, succumbing only to a combination of Tiger moments – like the birdie putt on the 72nd hole that left Woods thrusting fists in the air, then another birdie on the 18th hole Monday to extend the playoff.
He never performed better with club in hand than in that glorious week last summer. When this year’s Open starts Thursday on Long Island, Mediate will enter a major championship carrying the burden of expectation for the first time.
“I know what it’s going to be like and I’m ready,” Mediate said. “I love that stuff. It’s not going to be like a shock to me. I think it’s going to be loud and it’s going to be a lot of fun. And if I’m playing good, it’s going to be ridiculously fun. So there’s a little extra heat on me. I like that feeling.”
Sure seems like that’s the case.
He was at Bethpage’s practice area for about three hours Tuesday, spending probably no more than 45 minutes hitting balls. He held his wedge like a baseball bat for a few moments. He’d talk before chipping, after chipping and, in many cases, while chipping. He engaged a few fans, shook hands with friends, checked a couple text messages.
“I don’t take myself so damn seriously, most of the time,” Mediate said.
Of course, that’s not to suggest he didn’t want that Open – or this one – badly.
He took 76 shots in that 19-hole Monday playoff a year ago, and doesn’t like two of them: a wayward 6-iron on the first hole, and a putt on the 18th hole that never broke and kept Woods’ hope of a 14th major alive. They’re the ones that stick with him, not the pulled drive on the sudden-death hole or the second shot out of the sand that struck the grandstand.
Instead, those are moments he embraces. He picked up the ball that struck the stands and happily pantomimed throwing it to the green, hardly buckling in the pressure cooker that accompanies a major championship battle against perhaps the best golfer of all time.
“It was just a pretty incredible week,” said Woods, who played that week with a broken leg and blown-out knee ligament, injuries that required season-ending surgery shortly after Torrey Pines.
Mediate thought so as well, even when the putt he needed to send the day to a 20th hole slid past the right side of the cup.
He walked over to Woods, wrapped his opponent in a hug, and has basked in the afterglow that rarely follows a loss ever since.
“It was a big deal to a lot of people,” Mediate said. “It was a big deal to me. I enjoy that. It meant a lot to me. I really haven’t talked to Tiger about it, but being that he’s won 14, it probably didn’t mean as much to him.”
Mediate started getting a full appreciation of what it meant months later, when a Texas man who lost his daughter in a car crash shortly before last year’s U.S. Open sent him a letter and explained his family’s plight. The man, John Ray, had never heard of Mediate before that week at Torrey Pines, yet found himself rooting for the underdog.
“You showed me that it is possible to lose and yet not be beaten,” Ray wrote.
To Mediate, that meant as much, if not more, than the gargantuan silver cup he would have hoisted if he’d taken Woods down.
“He got something from that,” Mediate said. “I think that was cool.”
His Q-rating has soared in the last 12 months. He’s no longer anonymous in restaurants and coffee shops, even among people who’ve never picked up a golf club.
The people’s champion, indeed.
So where would it be more fitting than a public course like Bethpage Black for Mediate, who wears the blue-collar label as well as any pro golfer, to win a major? He knows there will be no shortage of people behind the ropes and in the stands just waiting to bellow “Rocco!” whenever he hits one close, just as they did at Torrey Pines.
“Maybe I can do one better this year,” Mediate said.