Maybe Rocco Mediate—with his effervescent personality and the revivified game that won him the Senior PGA Championship—will provide the boost the PGA Tour Champions supposedly needs.
For a while now, there’s been a narrative that 50-and-older professional golf is in an inevitable decline. But I continue to have a soft spot for the round bellies, and not just because it’s a too-accurate description of my own. It’s got to do with the love of the game expressed by someone like Mediate, pulling off a victory in his twilight years after his athletic clock seemed to stop.
From its start, the Senior Tour had a romantic appeal when it was founded in 1980. Arnold Palmer played, and it was with just as much zest as I’d witnessed him exuding in the 1960s. Soon enough the week-to-week tour became a place where a succession of former regular-tour stalwarts such as Miller Barber, Bob Charles, Dave Stockton, Jim Colbert and Gil Morgan claimed their moments in the sun. But what gave the Senior Tour its fizz was how Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Lee Trevino and finally Hale Irwin asserted the dominance that gave the appearance of a magical time machine.
A new name in 2003—the Champions Tour—corresponded with a changing dynamic. Tom Watson and Fred Couples became the biggest names, and they raised the stature of the tour by being competitive in their forays at the Masters and the British Open, with Watson nearly winning at Turnberry in 2009. Over the next decade, Hall of Famers were in short supply as the standout performers, until the ageless Bernhard Langer sustained the kind of excellence that’s allowed him to join Irwin and Trevino as the best 50-and-older players ever.
With the new year came the current name change—this year it’s the PGA Tour Champions. The overt marketing play, along with resistance from over-50 players like Vijay Singh and Davis Love III to leave the PGA Tour, seems a signal that trouble might be ahead. Langer may be doing historical things at age 58, but he has never truly moved the needle. Kenny Perry, a three-time major winner since turning 50, complained that the PGA Tour Champions is ignored or seen as a “freak show.”
The only thing freaky about the oldster tour is how skilled the players still are and how hard they compete. And there is something else. Senior professional golf has always provided more genuine characters per capita than any other area of the game. While they all had PGA Tour careers, there is an openness that comes with age and the realization that, as the sage John Bland used to remind other senior pros, “Boys, there are no more tours after this.” From originals like Chi Chi Rodriguez, Orville Moody, Allen Doyle and Dana Quigley, to a current crop that includes Mark Calcavecchia, Jesper Parnevik and, now, John Daly, older golfers have stories richer in humor, wisdom and humanity, and are more willing to share.
Mediate, 53, is naturally so. His victory Sunday was his third as a senior, and his first major ever. For the son of a barber from Greensburg, Pa., outplaying Colin Montgomerie in the final twosome partly made up for how close he came at the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, where he was leading by one when Tiger Woods made his famous 12-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole to tie, then led by one on the 18th hole of the Monday playoff before Woods tied him with another birdie, and then beat him with a par on the 91st hole of the championship.
Mediate is very much the same live wire he was when I first spoke to him at the 1984 U.S. Amateur at Oak Tree, where he spoiled Jay Sigel’s bid to win the championship three straight times. Mediate was disarmingly candid and funny in 1991 at Doral when he beat Curtis Strange in sudden death to become the first player to win on the PGA Tour with a long putter.
Mediate won six times on the regular tour while continually fighting back problems that caused him to alter his swing. The adjustments he made eventually took him so far away from what had brought him success that the bottom fell out early this year. His opening 62 on Thursday at Harbor Shores was the first time he had broken 70 all year.
He’s also been through some life passages—divorce from his wife and mother of his three sons, remarriage in 2014 and the birth of a daughter who just turned a year old, the recent death of his mother, and battles with excess weight.
Mediate got back on the right track late last year after asking Rick Smith, his longtime former swing coach, to begin working with him again.
“Roc just has tremendous hand/eye coordination and has always been a natural ballstriker,” Smith said, “but he had lost all his speed and accuracy. He was scared that he couldn’t play golf anymore, but we went back to the stuff we had worked on in the 1980s, and his game started to come back.
“He’s got so much energy, that he literally cannot sit still,” Smith continued. “When we have dinner and one of the wine glasses starts shaking, I know it’s Roc’s leg under the table. People think he’s scatterbrained, but when he’s up against the wall, he has this tremendous capacity for focus and work. He can lose 20 pounds in 40 days, just getting on the versa climber and killing himself. He’s just an amazing guy.”
Mediate exuded deep joy in his victory, but his wife, Jessica, had already seen it in him before the final round, even though “I hadn’t been there in like 1,700 years.”
“She goes, This is what you like, you like all the people and you like all the pressure … you should be able to thrive in this.”
She was right. “The U.S. Open in 2008 was a great test,” Mediate said. “And I passed. I just lost. This was a great test. I passed and was fortunate to win. Really fortunate to win.”
Of such stuff are great PGA Tour Champions stories—and characters—made. We just have to pay better attention.
Editors' Note: This story first appeared in the May 30, 2016 issue of Golf World.