Rocco's Modern Life
Continued (page 2 of 4)
He was riffing, or "yakking," as he likes to call it, about the day that made him famous. Outside, a light rain splattered an English garden. The insanity of Torrey was four weeks old, but still ringing in his ears. "After doing this thing with Tiger in the U.S. Open, that was a big deal," he says. "I still don't comprehend it. I still don't think I was the other guy in that playoff. It's really weird to sit and talk about it.
"It was truly a remarkable day, watching some of the highlights, seeing the people," he says. "[The USGA's] Mike Davis said 27,500 people were scanned on Monday morning to watch us play golf; another 3 to 4 million watched on TV. That's freaky to me. Now, was it because of me? Of course not. It was Tiger and the U.S. Open … but the 'me' part came in when it became a match. All of a sudden, he had to do something he never had to do before and people said, 'Hey, this is cool.' "
And they haven't stopped saying how cool it was. At the AT&T National, Woods, recuperating from surgery and unable to attend the event, asked Mediate to fill in and make an appearance for Tiger's foundation. That's where the fans broke down barricades to get at him, and the President invited him to the White House for a July 4th cookout and fireworks show. Rocco, ever the schmoozer and food connoisseur, noted the quality of the fried chicken, the macaroni and cheese and the rest of the menu, saying, "The bean medley was spectacular, and Mr. Bush was a lovely guy."
While he hasn't won a tour event since 2002 at Greensboro, the U.S. Open has given him star power, even in L.A., where his name is up for membership at Bel-Air CC. "He went into a Starbucks in Brentwood, and I got a text message from my friend working in the office building next door that they heard Rocco was in Starbucks," says Hilfman. "It was unreal."
Unreal is the way Mediate fought back against Woods from three strokes down to send the 18-hole playoff into sudden death. But it was the smile, the scruffy salt-and-pepper beard, the oversize pants with the peace-sign belt buckle (that he originally had made for Hilfman) and the pin collection on his hat that turned Rocco into a celebrity.
Yet not long ago Rocco's life was dark and dismal. What was the low point? Probably the final round of the 2006 Masters. Struggling entering the tournament, Mediate played his way into contention and had "one arm in the green jacket," before feeling a twinge in his back after he hit the flagstick with an 8-iron at the ninth. At the par-3 12th he hit three balls in the water and made a 10. Phil Mickelson went on to win his second green jacket and everybody forgot about Mediate, who finished T-36 after a final-round 80. He would only finish that high one more time the rest of the year.
The following January he was on the fairways at Kapalua with a belt pack and a microphone, working in his bare feet as an on-course analyst for Golf Channel. This didn't surprise Lee Janzen, who calls his former college teammate, "the best barefoot golfer I know." Rocco had a blast and didn't miss calling many shots that week either, but commentary work was no match for the competitive environment. One month later he was still injured, despondent and sitting on the couch of a friend's house in Los Angeles overlooking the fourth green at Riviera CC, when Hilfman walked in.
A 42-year-old originally from South Dakota, Hilfman is a physical theapist by trade and a free spirit by nature. An eternal optimist, she suffers from a variant of a serious kidney disease that can be fatal. "She peeked around the corner and this big smile covered her whole face," Mediate remembers. "She didn't look like she was dying to me!" Hilfman worked on Mediate's back and two hours later, he was off the table, pain free.