My Shot

Rocco At 50

He beat the school bullies and bargained with Ely Callaway and Evel Knievel, but even as Mr. Mediate is hitting a milestone birthday, he's afraid to greet Arnold Palmer without shaving first.

January 2013

I can't fathom how I got where I am. In 1985, playing to get to the finals of Q school, I came to the last hole feeling I needed a par to advance. I chipped in for birdie, a good but very lucky shot. I thought I had it made, but it turned out it barely got me into a playoff. I birdied the first hole and got to the finals, where I played my way to the tour. But what if that chip had missed? Would I be behind a convenience-store counter today? Who knows? Never discount the importance of luck and timing.

When things were going really well for me, I had a million friends. When I fell off, some of them left. When I came back, the ones who left didn't get to come back. I won't let them back in. I'm very Italian that way, very Godfather-ish. Loyalty is important.

As a kid growing up in Greensburg, Pa., there was a group of three or four guys taking my lunch money every day. This went on for months. It got to where I couldn't take the humiliation. One day I refused to hand the money over. The biggest kid of the bunch, and the worst by far, promised he'd get me the next day.

When I got home, I went to the garage, got a rake and, using my dad's band saw, cut off the last 18 inches of the wood handle. I drilled a hole through the end and looped some twine through it. I didn't sleep that night. When I got to school the next day, the big kid was waiting for me. We went into the bathroom, and all I can say is, the kid didn't know what hit him. I went crazy on him with that billy club. If some other kids hadn't pulled me off him, I'm sure I'd have beaten him to death. As it was, he was hurt pretty bad.

If this happened today, I'm sure I would have wound up in reform school. The principal, of course, heard about it, and he in turn beat me with a paddle on my backside until I screamed. But it was worth it. The end of the story, of course, is that the bullies never bothered me again.

I have a few friends back in my hometown, but those guys who bullied me left a mark. When I go back, I see a couple of them. They're still delivering pizzas. I consider how they never went anywhere in life and think, Good. You got what you deserved. That old Godfather thing in me comes right back.

In 1996, I decided I wanted to play Callaway clubs. I made an appointment to see Ely Callaway and showed up by myself -- no agent. I told him I loved his clubs, and that I wanted to play them.

"Fine," he said. "What do you want in the way of compensation?"

"Nothing. Just golf clubs."

"No money?" he said. "Everybody asks me for money."

"I don't want anything except free clubs," I said. "The company I'm with is dumping me, and I like your stuff better anyway, so that's it. No money, just free clubs."

Ely was skeptical that's all I wanted. He said, "You do realize that if I pay you, you aren't going to sell that many golf clubs for me, right?"

"I just . . . want . . . golf clubs," I said.

He looked at me for a long time and said, "I'm afraid I'm going to have to turn you down." I thanked Ely for his time and walked out the door. When I got a little ways down the hall, one of his guys grabbed me and pulled me back into Ely's office. Ely was still behind his desk.

"Rocco, I'm going to pay you $100,000 to play my clubs next year," he said. He laughed and shook his head. "I want to see what a guy like you can do."

After I thanked him and we shook hands, I told him,

"Do me a favor. Next year, when a new hot-shot young gun comes in and asks you for a million-dollar contract, ask him to write a three-page essay on why Callaway should pay him one dollar for his services.

I doubt Ely took my advice. But my point was -- and is -- there's little correlation in my mind between a player using a company's clubs, and the company selling enough clubs to justify the big contracts.

In 1984, when I was still an amateur, I was at a tournament for club champions at Lincoln Hills Country Club near Pittsburgh. For some reason Evel Knievel was there. I guess he'd heard I liked to play for money, because he approached me and said, "I'm looking for a game. Go choose any player you want, I'll take this guy, and we'll play a nine-hole scramble for $5,000."

"This guy" was Tom Winrow, a legend in national long-driving circles who hit it forever, and straight, too. I didn't have $5,000, and neither did my friend I liked to partner with, Marshall Marraccini. I told Mr. Knievel the stakes were just too high. I showed him my wallet, which had $20 in it, but that didn't stop him. "Tell you what," he said, "if you beat us, we'll pay you $5,000. If we win, your friend has to pay us each $1,000." I called Marshall over, and we huddled. He said he'd cover us. Talk about pressure. Marshall and I played our butts off and somehow won the last hole -- a drivable par 4 -- to win the bet. Knievel paid the $5,000 like it was nothing, and afterward he got me so drunk on gin and tonics I had to call my dad to come pick me up. I was rich. My cut of the $5,000 paid my rent for, like, six months.

There are a lot of awesome young players on the PGA Tour, but I see a lot of back problems in their futures. They're too fast and too strong for their bodies to withstand the way they're swinging. Players are too rotary with too much twisting. By the time these guys are 35, their backs are going to look like mine -- a total war zone.

The bottom line on Fred Couples is, he should have won 50 tournaments and 15 majors. I'm not saying he underachieved, but his swing, as beautiful to watch as it is, destroyed his back. There's a lot of turning in his swing, and a lot of violence. The rhythm of his swing disguises that. As a guy with a history of back problems, it hurts me just watching Freddie.

My favorite horror movie is video of me playing my second shot on the 15th hole in the third round of the 2006 Masters. I was two strokes behind Phil Mickelson, my back was already killing me, and I had a sidehill lie off wet turf. When I swung, my right foot slipped, and my back went bye-bye. The video sits there, and I watch myself getting injured the way people watch a car wreck. Why I don't throw it away, I can't tell you.

Same Masters, final round. I get to the 12th hole and still have a chance to win, even though I can barely swing, my back is hurting so bad. I hit it in the water. I go to the drop area and hit it in the water again. And then I do it again. And then a fourth time. I walk away with a 10, and I'm actually cool with that, because if you're going to go down in flames, at least make it memorable. But when I talk with reporters after the round, they tell me Tom Weiskopf still has the record with a 13. That hurt. All I was left with was a crappy score, no record and a hurt back.

Say I'm at Sea Island, and a bunch of guys who love Rocco Mediate -- it has happened, you know -- drive up from Jacksonville on Sunday to watch me. They've gone through all kinds of hell, driving a long way, paying for parking, tickets, beer and sandwiches. They find me and yell from outside the ropes, "Hey, Rocco! How's it going? We came all the way up to see you play!" No matter how I'm playing, I'm going over to the ropes to engage with those people. You've got to give the fans something. Arnold Palmer taught me that. You'd better give them a return on their investment, because if you act like a jerk, they're not gonna come back. All pros need to follow that bit of advice I got from Arnold 27 years ago: "Give them something."

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