In the 108 years that the United States Open golf championship has been played, there has never been an Open like the one last June at Torrey Pines.
It matched the greatest player in history proving once again how great he is -- even doing it on one leg -- against the 158th-ranked player in the world, a motor-mouthed 45-year-old whose career had been plagued by back problems. But Rocco Mediate stood toe to toe with Tiger Woods for 91 holes: 72 holes of regulation play, an 18-hole playoff and then a sudden-death playoff.
It's the kind of stuff that can even affect Wall Street (months before the economy crashed). According to market analysts, during the 4½ hours that Tiger Woods and Rocco Mediate were on the course on Monday, June 16, trading volume on the stock exchange dropped 10 percent. During the last few holes, according to estimates, the drop doubled.
There are all sorts of stories like that one. Joan Fay, the wife of USGA Executive Director David B. Fay, wanted to stay in San Diego on that Monday for the playoff, but she had commitments back home in New York on Tuesday. She arrived at the airport Monday morning, comforted by the fact that JetBlue provides TV service.
While waiting for her plane, she ran into several NBC executives, also flying home because of commitments. They were glum because the airline they were on had no TV service.
"I think there are seats on the JetBlue flight," Joan said, and the NBC execs made the switch. As luck would have it, the plane landed in New York just as Woods and Mediate were playing the 18th hole. It taxied to the gate, and the jetway pulled up.
"No one would get off," Joan says. "I mean, no one."
Another plane had just landed in Hartford, Conn. It was carrying golfers and their families from the Open to the next tour stop. Needless to say, everyone on the charter flight had been watching the playoff. When the plane landed, it pulled up to a private hangar, where tournament officials and volunteers were waiting. But no one got off the plane.
"They couldn't have gotten me or anyone else off with a court order at that point," says Lee Janzen, a teammate of Mediate's at Florida Southern. "We just told the flight attendants to go inside and let the tournament people know we'd deplane as soon as it was over."
The notion that the Everyman from Greensburg, Pa., could somehow beat the world's best-known athlete was must-see TV. Johnny Miller, the longtime NBC analyst, summed it up on Sunday afternoon when he said, "He looks like the guy who cleans Tiger's swimming pool. . . . Guys with the name Rocco don't get on the trophy, do they?"
Miller caught a lot of flak for that from Italian-American groups and had to publicly apologize, but no one understood the comment better than Rocco.
"Johnny called me to apologize," he says. "There was nothing to apologize for, and I told him that. If I had been sitting at home, I would have been saying, 'There's no way this can happen,' just like everyone else was saying it."
Through the years, other players had been fazed by Woods. "What people didn't understand was, I wasn't afraid of him," Rocco says. "Not because I don't think he's great -- I do think he's great. He hasn't got a bigger fan in the world than me. But why would I be afraid of him? No one expects you to win -- he's Tiger Woods, and you're not. To be in that arena with the greatest player of all time? If you're a golfer, why wouldn't you revel in every second of it? If there's one thing that makes me happy about all this, it's that I don't have to look back and say, 'Gee, I wish I'd been able to enjoy it and savor it while it was going on.' I did do that. Every second of it, right until I missed the last putt. I loved it all."
An early friendship
When Woods turned pro in 1996, some players snickered at his occasional off-the-course gaffes -- there wasn't much they could criticize on the course -- but Rocco never went that route. He understood from the beginning what Woods was going to mean to golf and to all those who played the game. Plus, as he put it, "I liked the kid."
Woods was initially shy around his peers, in part because most were older than he was, in part because he understood the resentment some of them felt. But the more he got to know other players, the more comfortable he became. And the more comfortable he became, the more they realized that they liked him.
"Tiger is a guy's guy," Rocco says. "He likes to tell bad jokes and talk about ball games and give everyone a hard time. Plus, he can take it when he gets it back. Once people got the chance to know him, they liked him."
Not surprisingly, Rocco was one of the players who went out of his way to make Woods feel comfortable. "I try to do that with all the young players," he says. "I remember how intimidated I felt when I first came out, and how much it meant to me when guys like [Raymond] Floyd and [Tom] Weiskopf and Curtis [Strange] went out of their way to try to help me."
One morning in 1987, Rocco's second year on tour, he walked into the locker room at Muirfield Village Golf Club, the site of Jack Nicklaus' Memorial Tournament. It was pro-am day, and Rocco was wearing a pullover sweater and comfortable pants. "They were kind of puffy," he says. "Not all that sloppy, but not exactly dressy."
"Hey, kid, come over here," he heard a voice say, and he looked up to see 1973 British Open champion Tom Weiskopf waving at him. Dutifully, Rocco made his way over to Weiskopf's locker.
"Do you think the people who paid money to play with you today want to see you looking like that?" Weiskopf said. "You want to be a pro, you have to look like one. You need new pants -- real pants."
He handed Rocco a card. "Call this guy. Tell him I told you to call. Get him to make some good pants for you."
Rocco did what he was told. Since that day he has worn nothing but tailor-made pants on days when he goes to the golf course on tour.
More than two decades after the discussion with Weiskopf, "I try to encourage guys, point them in the right direction," Rocco says.
When Woods hit the tour, "he had all sorts of people giving him advice, whether it was his dad or his agents or his swing coach," Rocco says. "He didn't need me or anyone for any of that. But I tried to make him feel like he was one of the guys. The way you do that is, you give someone a hard time, joke around. I think he always appreciated that about me."
Woods has always enjoyed the handful of people on tour who are not intimidated by him. Rocco was one of those people -- along with friends like Mark O'Meara and John Cook -- and Tiger always felt comfortable with him.
"Roc was always a guy who was easy to be around," Woods said during the 2008 Open. "Roc, he's one of the nicest guys you'll ever meet. He's been a friend of mine ever since I've been out here on tour."
Photos: From top: J.D. Cuban (2), Stephen Szurlej, Doug Pensinger/Getty Images, Jeff Gross/Getty Images
The playoff: red on red
Mediate was a bumpy putt away from being the Open champion at Torrey, but Woods' 12-foot birdie putt at the 72nd hole on Sunday found the cup. The night before the playoff, Rocco slept better than he had thought he would. He woke up shortly after 6 on Monday morning, had work done on his back, and then he showered and got dressed. "I had only one clean shirt left," he says. "It was red."
Woods has made the red shirt his Sunday trademark. Rocco wondered if he would wear red for a Monday playoff, or if the color was reserved for Sundays. Either way, he had no choice. "My options were a red shirt, a dirty shirt or no shirt," he says. "I went with red."
Rocco was the first one on the range that morning. Woods arrived a couple of minutes later and walked over to say hello. Only he didn't say hello.
Dressed in his Sunday red for a Monday, Woods walked over to Rocco, hand extended and said, "Nice f------ shirt!"
Rocco cracked up. Instead of explaining that this was his only clean shirt, he said, "I thought you only wore red on Sundays!"
That set the tone for the day.
"I know how he is, especially when he's got a major on the line," Rocco says, "but I wasn't going to change who I was. I was going to talk, because that's what I do. I was going to have fun, because that's what I do. That doesn't mean I wasn't trying to kill him, and he wasn't trying to kill me, but it just wasn't going to get tense like I know it does sometimes with him and some other players."
Rocco wasn't going to let Woods go into one of his no-talking trances for 18 holes.
"I wasn't trying to psych him out by talking," he says. "In fact, I think it probably loosened him up a little. But I had to go out there and play and act the way I would play and act on any other day."
A toilet break before the finish
After 72 holes of regulation and the 18-hole playoff, Woods and Mediate were still tied. For all of the USGA's talk about the unfairness -- "flukiness," as David Fay calls it -- of sudden death, the championship would be decided that way.
Before that, though, there were a couple of things that had to be done. For one thing, "It was a stroke-play round, so they had to add up their scores and sign their cards to make it official," says Mike Davis, the USGA official who walked every step with the players during the playoff. "We hadn't really thought about what would happen if they tied."
The scoring area was a long way off, so the two players added up their scores on the fringe of the green and signed their cards.
The next step was to get them back to the seventh tee, which was where the playoff to decide the playoff would begin. The USGA had carts waiting. Rocco was ready first, and he hopped into one of them and headed back to the seventh tee, which wasn't far from the 18th green.
He was on his way when Woods finished his card and said to Davis, "I need to go to the bathroom."
Uh-oh. The USGA hadn't thought about that, either. The locker room was a hike. The public toilets nearby would be jammed, and to get Woods to and from one would be chaotic. Davis jumped on his walkie-talkie and, fairly desperately said, "Anyone have an idea where I can take Tiger to go to the bathroom?"
Fay grabbed his walkie-talkie and directed Davis to a portable toilet in the NBC tower a few yards away.
Brilliant solution. But Davis had one other concern: The portable toilet was convenient and private, because it was inside the ropes, but it was still, well, a portable toilet.
"Tiger," Davis said gingerly. "Are we talking No. 1 or No. 2?"
Woods laughed. "No. 1," he said.
Davis escorted Woods to the NBC tower, and both men were feeling better when Woods and his caddie, Steve Williams, were carted out to the seventh tee, where Rocco was waiting.
The seventh was not an ideal hole for Rocco to play sudden death. It's a 461-yard, dogleg-right par 4. Rocco can play an occasional cut, but his regular shot is a high draw.
"I'd been hitting a big hook off the tee all week," he says. "Start it out right and have it come back to the center of the fairway as close to the dogleg as possible. I pulled it off a couple days, but I also landed in the first cut a couple times and in the left-hand bunker. It wasn't a good driving hole for me."
So much so that Davis got angry e-mails and letters from people claiming that the USGA had chosen No. 7 as the playoff hole because it wanted Woods to win. The decision on the playoff hole had been made on the previous Wednesday.
"Our thinking was twofold," Davis says. "First, it was close to the clubhouse and the 18th green, which would make it easy to get the players back there and relatively easy for fans to walk over there to watch. Second, [holes] 7-8-18 are a par 4, a par 3 and a par 5. We liked having three different pars on the first three holes, if it went that far. The last thing we were thinking when we made the decision was who might be in a sudden-death playoff."
Woods, hitting first after his birdie at the 18th, hit a perfect tee shot, cutting the dogleg. Rocco tried to hit his high hook again but started it too far left, and the ball hopped into a bunker.
"Right away," he says, "I knew I was in trouble."
So did Davis.
"I was feeling bad for him because he'd been so close to pulling the thing off," he says. "All of a sudden, I feel an arm around me, and I look up, and there's Rocco with this big grin on his face. He says, 'I can't tell you how much fun I'm having out here. In case I forget, I want to make sure you know I think you really nailed the setup, not just today, but all week.'
"I couldn't get over it," Davis says. "Here he is in desperate trouble, probably about to lose, and he's got this big smile on his face, and he's talking about how much fun he's having. I don't think I've ever seen anyone enjoy himself under pressure like that in my life."
People forget, Rocky lost the first fight. Then he came back and won the championship.'
When Rocco got to the ball, he saw that it was in the front of the bunker almost up against the lip, meaning he had virtually no chance to get the ball to the green. He had to give it a try, though, because he knew the likelihood was that Woods was going to make par.
"I swung really hard and just came over it," he says. "That's why the ball went so far left."
It was way left, up against the grandstand short and left of the green. Woods, seeing where Rocco was, didn't try anything fancy, hitting a 9-iron safely onto the front of the green, leaving himself about 20 feet for birdie.
Because the grandstand was an artificial, immovable obstruction, Rocco was entitled to relief. The grass in that area was so thick that the USGA had marked off a drop circle for any player who had to take a drop away from the grandstand. Davis showed Rocco the drop circle after he had picked up his ball. Rocco walked over to it, held his arm out as the rules prescribe and dropped the ball.
It landed in the circle, but the ground was hard enough that the ball hopped and rolled outside the circle. Seeing the ball leave the circle, Rocco instinctively bent over to pick the ball up and drop again. Fortunately for everyone, Davis had not turned away but was looking right at Rocco.
"I saw him reach down for the ball, and I thought, Oh my God!" Davis says. "I screamed, 'Rocco, ball's in play! The ball's in play!' "
Which it was, the instant it came to rest. "I just blanked on the rule," Rocco says. "I forgot that the ball just has to land in the circle to be in play, and for a second I thought it had to end up in the circle. Thank God Mike screamed at me."
If Rocco had picked up the ball and been penalized, Woods would have been required to putt out to make it official, but it would have been the worst possible ending to one of the great days in the history of golf.
As soon as he heard Davis screaming, Rocco stood up, thanked him and re-grouped. "All I really wanted was to get the ball somewhere on the green and give myself a putt at it," he says. "That was my only hope. When the ball bounced out of the circle, I didn't have a very good lie at all. I actually hit a hell of a shot from there."
The ball rolled 18 feet past the pin, just inside the distance Woods had from below the hole.
Woods cozied his putt up close -- no need to take any chances -- and tapped in. Rocco took his time over his par putt, read it a couple of balls outside right and gave it a good run. "For one second I thought, Maybe . . . " he says. "But then I could see it was going to go above the hole. I knew then it was over."
When Woods got to Rocco, he put out his hand.
"No, I don't think so," Rocco said. "I think this calls for a hug."
"Great fight," Woods said in Rocco's ear.
"I know," Rocco said.
Both were exhausted and exhilarated -- Woods by the victory, Rocco by the battle.
"Even now, months later, people still act as if I won," Rocco says. "Sometimes I feel like I have to remind them that I played great, I'm really proud of what I did, but I didn't win. The other guy won."
He paused. "I would love one more shot at a major though. One more shot.
In all, I was probably a billion-to-one shot. ... Maybe there's a sequel out there for me, too.'
"On my wall at home I've always had a poster from 'Rocky,' " he says. "It says, 'His whole life was a million-to-one shot.' Well, I think, in all, I was probably a billion-to-one shot."
He smiled. "People forget, Rocky lost the first fight. Then he came back and won the championship. Maybe there's a sequel out there for me, too."
No one would deserve it more.