Rich Lerner: Q+A

People Person: Rocco Mediate

Rocco Mediate

Rocco joined us in a sunset strip tattoo parlor just before Christmas, where he put his three sons' initials--RNM--on his arm.

March 2011

Rocco Mediate is impetuous, and that's both his greatest quality and his most glaring weakness. At 48, most guys are getting stress tests, not tattoos. After 25 years as a playing pro, they're thinking about the Champions Tour, not holing shots from 100-plus yards four days in a row to win a Fall Series thriller. But that's Rocco, who seems to rise from oblivion every few years.

It had been a struggle professionally (18 missed cuts) and personally (ending a 20-year marriage) since Rocco lost that epic U.S. Open playoff to Tiger Woods in 2008 at Torrey Pines. Things are better now, especially after his win at the Open guaranteed he'll have a place on the PGA Tour as he approaches his 50th birthday. The newly added body art reminds him of what's most important: his three boys, Rocco (20), Nicco (18) and Marco (15).

You were 182nd on the money list when you won in October. How'd it happen?
It seemed like it was out of left field, but to me and a few people around me we felt it was on the way. I'd struggled for a couple years, but I knew I wasn't finished. I just had to make a few.

You didn't just make a few. You holed a bunch with full swings.
I made four eagles through the air and still had to make a five-footer to win. Shows you how hard it is to win.

It appeared as though you might never really recover from that Open playoff at Torrey Pines.
I didn't want my legacy to be losing that U.S. Open. That's why San Jose was so important. I know it's a Fall Series tournament, but I don't care who's playing, it's still a PGA Tour event. The fact that I won again after what happened at Torrey Pines is huge for me because now I have something else to talk about.

No disrespect, but don't you think it's fair to say you'll be remembered as the guy who pushed Tiger at one of the great U.S. Opens in history?
Yeah, the average guy might think of me and that U.S. Open, and that's fine with me. It was my ultimate performance against the ultimate player. Everyone thought I was going to get my ass handed to me in that playoff. Even though I came up short, I controlled the insanity between the ears. There were 30,000 fans screaming at Torrey, the whole world watching to see a guy get decimated. Tiger does that to people. He destroys people.

But when I woke up Monday morning I thought I had a chance to win. No way I was going to lay down. Even when I was three back I thought, If I do exactly what I want, I can beat this guy. I had a one-shot lead going to 18, and I was not surprised. At least now I've won something after that loss.

You seem to excel when you have a chance to win.
I've always felt very comfortable when I've been in the hunt. If I could be in there every weekend I could win a lot of tournaments. I just don't get in the hunt that much. I'm not like Tiger or Phil. But I've always enjoyed having it mean more. I remember my caddie saying that Sunday afternoon at CordeValle, "The way we play these nine holes could change our lives." It did.

You're kind of a comeback king, aren't you?
One of my favorite lines by "Rocky" is something like, "It's not about how hard you hit, it's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward." That's how winning's done. And I've taken some major hits. Lots of guys on tour have. If I go down I want to go down on my terms, and that's only if my body quits on me. I've been held back a lot because of injuries.

I remember in the mid-'90s after back surgery the doctors said there was a good chance I might never reach that level again. Well, I came back and beat Tiger in Scottsdale in '99. That was the coolest thing ever, a huge confidence boost.

Then your back gave out again a few years later.
The back went bye-bye again around '03. The only reason I keep coming back is I know it's still there. I've never lost the ability. Sometimes I've just lost the tools to ignite that ability.

Before the Fall Series win, how low had you sunk?
Physically I was OK. I didn't have many injuries like I did in the mid-2000s. The lows were that I just didn't make enough putts and my attitude was horrible. It kept compounding. But I never lost the motion of the golf swing, and that's what kept me coming back. I just couldn't make a score. Then I started making some scores. But I never stopped believing.

So you never considered walking away?
No, and I've always told people that if I lost my ability to play I'd find some- thing else to do. Even in my injury years I lost my health, but not my ability. I knew if I got healthy I'd come back.

What would you do if you had to quit playing?
love to teach, love to show people how to do things. One thing I know how to do is move a golf club. If I couldn't play the game, I'd teach. I'd definitely still be in the game of golf.

You've worked with Rick Smith, and for the last six years or so Jimmy Ballard. What's your swing philosophy?
People over the years have been trying to re-invent the wheel. Every great player who's ever played didn't look the same or swing the same. All the great players did the same thing from a certain point, from halfway down through impact. Jimmy's helped with my body motion so that it doesn't hurt. Swinging over a fixed point won't work forever. I've survived for 26 years with motion.

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