Rocco's Modern Life
Reinvigorated by his U.S. Open loss, Rocco Mediate heads to Oakland Hills eager to lock up a Ryder Cup spot
Everybody loves Rocco Mediate. Proper English gentlemen standing alongside the 18th fairway at the British Open at Royal Birkdale. Rowdy Americans, who knocked down barricades outside the clubhouse at the AT&T National at Congressional CC. A-listers such as Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger, Tiger Woods, Greg Norman and President George W. Bush. Lifelong buddies from his college days in Florida and the various clubs he has played out of—barefoot at times. People on the streets, at airports and behind counters at coffee shops. They all love the heavily caffeinated, highly animated, very real character who burst through television sets like one big breath of fresh air at the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines.
The Open was more than Mediate's breakout moment as a golfer. Those 19 playoff holes defined him not only as a lovable everyman from western Pennsylvania, but also as a fierce competitor with the attitude to challenge the world's most dominant athlete. The buzz followed him to Royal Birkdale and will accompany him to next week's PGA Championship at Oakland Hills CC, where he will be playing for a spot on his first Ryder Cup team. "Joe Roast Beef knows who he is now," says swing instructor Rick Smith, a long-time friend. "It's like a movie, and he's the hero."
Our hero was there all along, derailed by a bad back, growing older and dipping his toes, literally, into television work. His body and mind needed some fixing in order to free-up the inner Mediate, to let all that joy come pouring out on the course, in a prime-time spectacle that was dubbed an instant classic as much because Woods won with a broken leg and a shredded knee, as because of the fight Mediate put up. "Rocco has a lot of heart, and he ain't afraid of anything," says Azinger. "He proved that at the U.S. Open."
Heart, Rocco's got plenty of. And friends, too. Whether its Southport, England, southwest Florida or Southern California, Mediate's hangout spots are easy to find. Chances are he's holding court either at a driving range, a Starbucks (his drink is a "White Lightning," an iced coffee with four shots of espresso and two pumps of white mocha), the clubhouse at Calusa Pines in Naples, or the head table at Toscana in Los Angeles. When he is out to dinner, Rocco is famous for ordering for everyone, and he will usually pose for pictures with the chef, waiters, maitre d' and dishwashers before the night is over. "When I go out to dinner with Rocco Mediate, I don't even look at the menu," says Azinger, "He'll say, 'What do you want Zing?' and I'll say, 'I'll follow you, whatever.' Then you sit back and all this stuff comes out."
While a little more low-key than normal, Azinger and Mediate shared one of those dinners Friday night at the British Open. Sitting around the table was Mediate's college friend-turned-agent Tom Elliott, who tabbed him "Low Mortal" at Torrey Pines, and the physical therapist Mediate calls his "best friend," Cindi Hilfman. It was an exhausting day on the links, especially for a 45-year-old with a bad back, but before the night was over Jim Furyk and Tom Watson were among those who stopped by.
Mediate always was popular with his fellow players, but what he did against Woods, "for the good of the game," as Norman positioned it with a handshake greeting at Royal Birkdale, put him in a different club. "I won golf tournaments before, so at this stage people knew me," Mediate said earlier that afternoon, mixing Peroni with lemonade to create a beer shandy at his hotel. "Obviously my name is my name. I wouldn't say it's catchy, but it's different."
So is the bearer of the name. Two hours after his second round ended with a birdie, he was relaxing in black drawstring sweatpants, a black Callaway sweater and black Nike Frees. His legs rested on a chair, exposing bare ankles and clean-shaven legs. (That's right—Mediate shaves his legs. "A lot of women are jealous," he says.) On the wall a flat-screen TV replayed the afternoon action, Rocco's name still on the first page of the leader board.