My ShotDecember 16, 2012

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.

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."

Arnold is very big on taking hats off indoors; if you walk into Bay Hill with a hat on, someone will correct you within 10 seconds. He hates facial hair, too -- you're taking your chances showing up in front of him without having shaved that morning. At Pebble Beach, I dropped into the restaurant for a minute, not to eat but just to mingle. A buddy tells me Arnold is there, on the other side of the restaurant, and suggests we go over and say hello. I refused. "No way I'm going over there," I said. "I didn't shave this morning. If he sees me like this, he'll kill me."

There's a movement to relax the standards in golf, a fear that if we don't start allowing hats to be worn backward, the game will die. Well, golf didn't get to where it is now by allowing bare feet in the dining room. Traditions and institutions are important. If everyone asked themselves what would Tom Watson, Jack Nicklaus, Ben Hogan or Byron Nelson do in a given situation, and behave the same way, the game would be better off.

There are a lot of differences between a tour pro and the average amateur that are hard to explain, but here's one: Hand me a driver -- any loft, swing weight, length or flex. The first drive will be off the planet. The second drive will be pretty straight. Not optimal, but straight.

Some guys try to work the ball both ways. Not me. I don't care if the pin is two feet from the right edge of the green, I'm going to draw it in there because that's my natural shape. I won't hit a fade unless I have a tree right in front of me. I got to where I am because I have only one shot shape, not in spite of it.

rocco mediate

Pros miss a lot of shots, obviously. The difference between outstanding pros and ordinary ones is, the good ones can tell immediately what caused the bad shot and fix the problem before the next shot. Ordinary pros are lost until they get to the range after the round.

I'll hit a bad shot and blurt, "I am so dead over there." Invariably, somebody will say, "Don't say that!" As though what I said is going to cause the ball to jump out of a good place and into a bad one.

I don't ask god for help on the golf course. There's too much going on in the world for God to intervene on a stupid golf shot. I think God looks at me and says, "I gave this guy the ability to be very good at what he does; I'm gonna let him go." And He puts the fate of that six-foot putt all in my hands.

I have nothing against sport psycholo-gists. I've just never had the need for one. Here's golf in a nutshell: If you don't think you can pull off a shot, you probably won't. If you do think you can hit the shot, you still might not. Have a nice day, and good luck.

Guys would play against Tiger and fold up like lawn chairs. But in that 2008 U.S. Open playoff, I wasn't worried about falling apart. One of my caddies, Pete Bender, had always told me, "One thing you never do, Roc, is spit the bit." I'm proud of that. I saw going up against Tiger as an opportunity to show myself and the world what I'd learned in my career playing golf. I liked the idea that there was no place to hide.

Was I rooting for Tiger to miss that putt he had to tie me on the 72nd hole at Torrey Pines? Of course. Did I think he would make it? Of course. Would anybody other than Tiger have made that putt? Absolutely not.

At the press conference Sunday night I was asked about my chances in the Monday playoff. I said, "I have absolutely nothing to lose." When the conference was over, it hit me: I had everything to lose. This was my moment. It was my big chance. Everything I'd coveted my whole life was right in front of me.

Losing that playoff hurt. It lingered, and even though I'd won five times on tour, I think there was a sense my Open performance was kind of a fluke. But in 2010 I won the Open, opening with 64-65. Getting that trophy took all of the hurt away. It affirmed I wasn't just a tour pro, but a genuinely good one.

The onslaught against Tiger during the "scandal" was ridiculous. When you become the best at something, people want to take you to the ground. Nobody knew what was going on in Tiger's marriage or his life, and they didn't care. All they knew was, anybody who was this supposedly perfect needs to be taken down. He needs to suffer. I ask, "Why?" If you tore down every athlete who was imperfect, there wouldn't be any athletes left.

When Tiger was on top, I would have loved having his gig -- for about a month. After I lost the playoff to Tiger, I got stopped 10 times a day, easy, for a year. It started to get to me, and I'm no introvert. I can't imagine living my whole life having to eat in back rooms with my friends instead of out in public.

At the 1999 Phoenix Open, I'm paired with Tiger and Harrison Frazar in the last round. The number of people following us was insane. As we're walking off the sixth tee, a security guard and some others charged by us and tackled a guy. The dude was huge, and they weren't messing around; it was a brutal takedown. I looked over at Tiger, and he just shrugged and kept walking. It was like, No big deal. I've seen this before. It turned out the guy had a gun in his backpack. I was shaken up, but for Tiger, it was life as usual.

I've been a Pittsburgh Pirates fan my entire life. They haven't had a winning season since 1992, and I'm still with them. I don't leave. With that, you think I'm going to kick Tiger to the curb because he had a couple of rough years?

I listened to the outrage about Keegan Bradley spitting and wondered, Are there any more ways we can think of to stop a person from acting like a human being? What about baseball players? Have you gotten on their cases lately? It was ridiculous. But that's the world we live in.

In poker, there are tells -- some giveaways from players that reveal something they don't want you to know. At my first World Series of Poker, in 2005, a pro player comes up to me and says, "I want to give you a little advice. I notice you're waving your hands around and talking a lot. Be careful. You might give something away." I said, "But did I ever stop waving my hands and talking? It seems to me the tell would be if I stopped doing what I do all the time." The guy said, "Good point," and left.

There are tells in golf, too. The biggest is a guy taking more time to putt or hit a shot. Jim Furyk at the U.S. Open and again at the Ryder Cup are great examples. Being super careful and extra prepared doesn't help. If I'm playing against a guy and he starts taking extra time, it's going to make me a little more relaxed, because I know he isn't comfortable.

The newest technology is an MRI-like thing for your golf swing. It's beyond TrackMan. They strap these sensors on you, and you get a profile where parts of your body register in different colors. The trick is to keep the colors as uniform as possible, because if you're stressing one part, the rest come tumbling down. Now, what lowers the stress is to keep your head level throughout the swing. To do that, you need to swing from the ground up and use your lower body and the big muscles to generate speed. I call it "sucking the power out of the ground."

If your head stays level -- I don't like this dipping stuff you see among a lot of players -- it leads to effortless power. And it's easier on you physically. You hit it more solid. I'm longer than I've ever been and have an extra 15 to 20 yards on call with the driver when I need it, by pretty much keeping my head level. It's a good swing thought for everybody.

Favorite swing of all time: Walter Hagen. Bobby Jones is the only old-timer people look at, and there's this idea that all Hagen could do was chip and putt. That's crazy. Look up his swing on YouTube sometime. Look at his wide stance -- I think getting the feet farther apart is going to become a trend because it makes the swing more lateral than rotary. Then watch his rhythm. It's gorgeous.

The rule banning anchoring is coming, and I don't get it. I was one of the first regular tour guys to use a long putter, in 1991. I had some success with it, but it certainly wasn't the answer to every prayer. If it was, everybody would be using one. You still have to move the putter.

The champions tour is sitting there waiting to be had, right? No cut. Guaranteed check. But the decision isn't that simple. The Champions Tour is completely misunderstood. It's murder out there. The guys can and do go deep. Freddie Couples and Tom Lehman could definitely still win on the PGA Tour. So on one hand there's the bigger purses on the PGA Tour -- where I still think I can win, by the way -- but a more steady income on the Champions Tour. Which would you choose if you were me?