June 16, 2008

Rocco Was A Real Battler

Despite being up against, arguably, the best golfer ever, Rocco played his heart out, and the fans loved it

"I think I scared Tiger. And then i thought I had him. At least he knows he was in a fight."

"I think I scared Tiger. And then i thought I had him. At least he knows he was in a fight."

The last time a guy named Rocco and built like Mediate entered your living room on a summer weekend, you probably paid him a bundle because that's the going rate for emergency house calls. But this guy here didn't drop in to repair your air conditioner. This smiling stranger was an integral part of a U.S. Open that was extraordinary even before it went from prime time to overtime. This surprise guest proved you don't need to have fame to have fun, and you can royally entertain an audience even when you're comfortable introducing yourself as the warm-up act for Sinatra.

Mediate didn't win Monday, because his playoff adversary was the incomparable Tiger Woods, whom Rocco studiously omits from conversations about other players for a reason: "He's not normal...he's not one of us." Woods prevailed on the 91st hole with a par, but this Open will be an instant classic remembered for how it shattered the tired shibboleth that golf is boring to watch, especially when the characters involved are as likable as Tiger and Rocco, the stakes as significant as a national championship, the stage as worthy as Torrey Pines South and the galleries as enthusiastic as these in supposedly blasé Southern California. Surely this tournament and this area code deserve to connect again, soon. Monday's massive crowd validated that.

"ROC-CO!! ROC-CO!! LET'S GO ROC-CO!!"

The natives converted this muny into Giants Stadium around about Friday, embracing Mediate as if he was a surfer dude instead of a 45-year-old blue-collar grinder from Pennsylvania. When Rocco birdied three straight holes on the back nine of the playoff to take a one-stroke lead, even this cigar aficionado imagined fulfilling mission implausible, a victory stogie. "I think I scared Tiger," said Rocco. "And then I thought I had him. At least he knows he was in a fight." Much as Paul Goydos was "discovered" last month during the Players, three time zones away from his home, spectators at Torrey Pines South gravitated toward a guy who emotes. "They were unbelievable to me," Rocco went on. "All week long, unbelievable. Where did all these people come from on a Monday? It felt like Sunday. I can understand them pulling for Tiger or Phil. But they were great to me."

And he was great to them. Mediate walks as if he's late for a train. He's perpetual motion over the ball until impact. He waves, he laughs, he talks to himself, then hangs around waiting for an answer. Rocco earned a spot by surviving an Open playoff qualifier against so many kids, he felt like a chaperone. When he arrived at Torrey Pines, he went to the merchandise tent and bought Open pins for his hat, like the fan he is. "Hey, I play golf for a living," Mediate said. "And I played well in my favorite tournament, one where you don't have to make eight birdies a round to compete, one where you have to be precise. Why shouldn't I be happy?"

Spongy greens troubled some players, one of whom carped that it felt like he was "putting an egg instead of a ball." But Rocco never barked, because this was the "most fairest" Open setup ever. His attitude might have had something to do with his altitude, and overall, the usually restive locker room was a demilitarized zone. Torrey South was difficult and exacting, yet playable and flexible. More significantly, golfers sensed the intransigence and arrogance of the previous USGA regime was absent. Jim Vernon, Jim Hyler and Mike Davis got high marks for directing and producing an electric show. "Nothing wrong with the course," Rocco repeated. "Absolutely nothing."

Before you annoint Tiger's effort as courageous, hold the phone. Courageous is about saving lives, not saving par. But what Tiger did was better than Kirk Gibson's home run on wounded knee in the 1988 World Series. That was one swing. Woods walked 91 holes, about 20 miles. Or, to put it another way, the icon with whom he is often compared, Michael Jordan, would not have played on that leg. There are no substitutes in golf, and no timeouts for injury. Woods was not only playing to win, but win in regulation. Monday's result -- the entire week, really -- must further demoralize fellow competitors. They couldn't beat him when he was whole. Now, they can't handle him when he's under doctor's orders to take a vacation and not play golf.

"Look, nothing he does surprises me," Mediate concluded. "He wasn't at his best, but he still has that air about him. Even if he's beating you, you want to be around him. At least he didn't hand me my behind. I didn't want it to be a walk in the park for him, and it wasn't. I had a putt on No. 18 to win it. And like yesterday, he had a putt for birdie to tie me and made it. He's amazing. I never had a better time on a golf course, and now, I want to do it again. Like I said the other day, 'There's always a chance, even against Tiger Woods.' Maybe next time. I hope there is one." GW