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People Person: Rocco Mediate

By Rich Lerner Photos by J.D. Cuban
January 23, 2011

Rocco joined us in a sunset strip tattoo parlor just before Christmas, where he put his three sons' initials--RNM--on his arm.

is impetuous, and that's both his greatest quality and his most glaring weakness. At 48, most guys are getting stress tests, not tattoos. After 25 years as a playing pro, they're thinking about the Champions Tour, not holing shots from 100-plus yards four days in a row to win a Fall Series thriller. But that's Rocco, who seems to rise from oblivion every few years.

It had been a struggle professionally (18 missed cuts) and personally (ending a 20-year marriage) since Rocco lost that epic U.S. Open playoff to Tiger Woods in 2008 at Torrey Pines. Things are better now, especially after his win at the Open guaranteed he'll have a place on the PGA Tour as he approaches his 50th birthday. The newly added body art reminds him of what's most important: his three boys, Rocco (20), Nicco (18) and Marco (15).

You were 182nd on the money list when you won in October. How'd it happen?

It seemed like it was out of left field, but to me and a few people around me we felt it was on the way. I'd struggled for a couple years, but I knew I wasn't finished. I just had to make a few.

You didn't just make a few. You holed a bunch with full swings.

I made four eagles through the air and still had to make a five-footer to win. Shows you how hard it is to win.

It appeared as though you might never really recover from that Open playoff at Torrey Pines.

I didn't want my legacy to be losing that U.S. Open. That's why San Jose was so important. I know it's a Fall Series tournament, but I don't care who's playing, it's still a PGA Tour event. The fact that I won again after what happened at Torrey Pines is huge for me because now I have something else to talk about.

No disrespect, but don't you think it's fair to say you'll be remembered as the guy who pushed Tiger at one of the great U.S. Opens in history?

Yeah, the average guy might think of me and that U.S. Open, and that's fine with me. It was my ultimate performance against the ultimate player. Everyone thought I was going to get my ass handed to me in that playoff. Even though I came up short, I controlled the insanity between the ears. There were 30,000 fans screaming at Torrey, the whole world watching to see a guy get decimated. Tiger does that to people. He destroys people.

But when I woke up Monday morning I thought I had a chance to win. No way I was going to lay down. Even when I was three back I thought, If I do exactly what I want, I can beat this guy. I had a one-shot lead going to 18, and I was not surprised. At least now I've won something after that loss.

You seem to excel when you have a chance to win.

I've always felt very comfortable when I've been in the hunt. If I could be in there every weekend I could win a lot of tournaments. I just don't get in the hunt that much. I'm not like Tiger or Phil. But I've always enjoyed having it mean more. I remember my caddie saying that Sunday afternoon at CordeValle, "The way we play these nine holes could change our lives." It did.

You're kind of a comeback king, aren't you?

One of my favorite lines by "Rocky" is something like, "It's not about how hard you hit, it's about how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward." That's how winning's done. And I've taken some major hits. Lots of guys on tour have. If I go down I want to go down on my terms, and that's only if my body quits on me. I've been held back a lot because of injuries.

I remember in the mid-'90s after back surgery the doctors said there was a good chance I might never reach that level again. Well, I came back and beat Tiger in Scottsdale in '99. That was the coolest thing ever, a huge confidence boost.

Then your back gave out again a few years later.

The back went bye-bye again around '03. The only reason I keep coming back is I know it's still there. I've never lost the ability. Sometimes I've just lost the tools to ignite that ability.

Before the Fall Series win, how low had you sunk?

Physically I was OK. I didn't have many injuries like I did in the mid-2000s. The lows were that I just didn't make enough putts and my attitude was horrible. It kept compounding. But I never lost the motion of the golf swing, and that's what kept me coming back. I just couldn't make a score. Then I started making some scores. But I never stopped believing.

So you never considered walking away?

No, and I've always told people that if I lost my ability to play I'd find some- thing else to do. Even in my injury years I lost my health, but not my ability. I knew if I got healthy I'd come back.

What would you do if you had to quit playing?

love to teach, love to show people how to do things. One thing I know how to do is move a golf club. If I couldn't play the game, I'd teach. I'd definitely still be in the game of golf.

You've worked with Rick Smith, and for the last six years or so Jimmy Ballard. What's your swing philosophy?

People over the years have been trying to re-invent the wheel. Every great player who's ever played didn't look the same or swing the same. All the great players did the same thing from a certain point, from halfway down through impact. Jimmy's helped with my body motion so that it doesn't hurt. Swinging over a fixed point won't work forever. I've survived for 26 years with motion.

So you don't subscribe to the idea of turning over the golf ball like so many of the young power players. Why?

Nobody ever backed into it. Everybody who played great went to the target. In any sport, you go back to your right, and then the motion goes to your left. You never keep your head still throwing a baseball or hitting a tennis ball. And very few sports are done with narrow stances. You never see a tennis player receive a 120-mile-per-hour serve with his feet together. You have to be wide and ready to move. Hogan was wide and made a huge move to his right side. Jack was wide. Look at Trevino.


Speaking of Trevino, I heard you had a chance last May to hang out with him at his house in Dallas.

I learned so much. Best of all, he taught me how to move the ball left to right at will, which I'd never been able to do. And this is from one of the greatest to ever strike a golf ball. It's one of the reasons I won in San Jose. The shot I holed on 17 on Sunday was a flat, sliding wedge, so spending time with Lee was huge.

Aside from the cut shot, you and Lee are similar in personality, aren't you?

I'm always yakking, and my hands are moving. I have a lot of nervous energy, and I have to talk. I can't be quiet. That's just not going to work for me.

On the personal front, how are things since your separation from your wife?

Over the last few years I've gotten us all settled down, and our three boys are doing great. My oldest is at UCLA and doing quite well. He's only five minutes from where I'm living, so that's great. I spend most of my time off the tour with the kids in Seattle or down here in L.A. I'm very pleased.

How's your weight these days?

Like a damn yo-yo. When I can't work out I'll gain weight; it's that simple. For the most part though, I've kept it off. I don't work out a lot on the road. I'll stretch and do abdominal work, but I like to play golf. When I get off the road, though, I get on the climber. It's my favorite machine ever. In terms of the swing, everything works from the ground up anyway, and I'm really strong there.

One thing I always liked about you is that you hitch your slacks up a little higher than most guys. It's old school.

It's definitely old school. I don't have the body to wear them any other way. When I first came out I'd been wearing wrinkled, baggy cotton pants, and Tom Weiskopf asked me, "Do you think people come to a golf tournament and want to see you dress like a bum? They don't want to see you in a $10 pair of pants." He got me in touch with a guy, and ever since that week I've gotten my pants made for me. Even my shoes are custom-made.

What's your impression of this wave of really talented young players?

It's amazing how much better they are at so young an age. When I first came on tour in the '80s, I remember walking up and down the practice tee at Pebble and watching Nicklaus, Watson and Norman. I called Rick Smith and said, "Rick, I got no chance." Before I hit a ball I knew if I didn't improve I'd be done. Now these kids are ready right away.

If you had to buy stock in one young player, which one would you choose, and why?

I'd buy [Rickie] Fowler's stock. He has all the shots. Plus, he's really respectful in a sport where you could be whatever you want to be. He's a good kid. Dustin [Johnson] is the same way. The fact that he won after the two majors is remarkable. They both have big things coming. They're good guys.

Fans view you the same way. What's your approach in that regard?

The only thing I do better than the average guy is play golf--some of the time! Arnold taught me a lot about how to act. Look people in the eye. And that's what these kids do. Look, it's easy to be cool to everybody when you shoot 65, but can you do it when you shoot 75? Young fans look up to us, and even if it's not natural to interact, at least pretend. Whether it's saying to a fan, "How ya' doing?" or throwing them a golf ball, you have to try to give back a little.

In terms of competing, do you still like your chances better than those of the youngsters?

The kids are still on a learning curve. To win tournaments you have to know yourself and what works under the gun. I know what works under the gun. I still think I have more in me.

Back to Tiger: Have you ever sat down with him to reminisce about the '08 Open?

He's always cordial on the putting greens, but I've always wanted to sit down, have a scotch and kind of b.s. with him like two buddies.

We never have, and it's kind of sad. It might've been another day for him considering he's won so many majors, but it was special for me. I do remember the ceremony, and he said, "You've got one of these in you, Roc." That was kind of cool. And Notah Begay told me that Tiger said, "I couldn't get rid of Roc; he just wouldn't go away." That was cool, too.

Can he be the same Tiger after all he's been through?

I don't know if he'll be as dominant as he was in 2000, but I know he won't quit trying. He'll figure it out. He's become a little more human, feeling what we feel.

Do you like what he's done with Sean Foley?

No, sorry. The club's not where it used to be. It's around him, not up and down, and then he becomes too reliant on timing. No one in history ever swung the club as perfectly as he did back in 2000. Since he started tinkering, his striking ability has suffered. His ball goes sideways more than it used to. Of course, with that power and speed it's going to go crooked occasionally, and sometimes it looks worse than it is. It's technique, period. If he figures out how to get the club back where he needs to, he'll be back.

Will he break Jack's record for major wins?

If he gets the club more up and down and not around his body, he'll beat Jack's record, guaranteed. At big events you've got to drive the ball where you can find it.

You joined Bel-Air in Los Angeles a few years ago. That must be a nice hang.

It's truly one of the coolest places. It's a George Thomas gem, really quaint. I was on the range recently with Jerry West and Pete Sampras. They're great guys. And they love their golf.

Fans don't just like Rocco, they seem to love him. Why?

That's nice of you to say. Look, when you're on television, that means you're playing well. And whenever I'm on, which isn't a lot, I'm a pretty happy guy, a little more animated than the average pro. People always say that I look like I'm having a good time. Well, why wouldn't I? One, I'm going to make lots of money, and two, I might get a nice trophy. I always talk to people. Hogan couldn't do it. Tiger doesn't do it. But if I tried to play like them I'd be lousy. I'd have loved to have hung out with Walter Hagen. We would've had some fun.

Rich Lerner is a commentator and essayist for the Golf Channel.