I don’t envy Paul Azinger. Next Tuesday he has to choose from a lot of worthy players to fill those four captain’s picks for the U.S. Ryder Cup team. But if I were Azinger, one of those picks would definitely go to Rocco Mediate.
One of the most important elements of a Ryder Cup team is chemistry. These guys have to spend seven days together, and how they relate to each other is very important. Rocco is so personable and fun that he would really lend himself to that. You want your players to be relaxed, not tense, and Rocco would lighten the team’s mood.
Rocco would also help deflect some of the media spotlight from the other American players. In a major tournament with a hundred-plus players, any guy not named Tiger or Phil can find some refuge from the cameras. But at the Ryder Cup, the scrutiny is inescapable. Everyone is watching your every shot. Rocco’s worked at The Golf Channel, and he knows the media. Azinger will definitely be the team spokesman, but Rocco’s easy-going humor will disarm reporters and give the rest of the team some air to breathe.
Of course, chemistry and media-savvy are nice traits, but the most important criteria for Ryder Cup selection is: Can he play? With Rocco, the answer is a resounding yes.
All great teams have a spark plug, a player who is ready to take charge and be an on-field leader. When I think of great spark plugs in sports, I always think of Dodgers shortstop Maury Wills. For the younger generation, great spark plugs are guys like Tom Brady. They don’t have to be most talented player, just the one willing to stand up and lead. Rocco is that kind of player.
I’m not Rocco’s coach, but I did work with him at Bel-Air Country Club, where I teach, last year. I also saw him briefly at the PGA Championship this year in Michigan. He was in good spirits and his back appeared healthy. I know Rocco’s performance has been just average as of late (he missed the cut at the Barclays and shot a final-round 85 at the PGA Championship), but over the past two years he has really played himself into position to make this Ryder Cup team. In addition to his epic U.S. Open runner-up finish to Tiger Woods, Rocco tied for sixth against a tough field in this year’s Memorial and was second to Vijay Singh at Bay Hill in 2007.
It is his performance at Torrey Pines on the largest stage imaginable in this game that makes me think Rocco would be a great addition to the U.S. team because he showed he can isolate himself from the situation and perform under great pressure.
Another thing to remember is that the Ryder Cup format (better ball, alternate shot and singles) requires different skills than a stroke-play tournament. Match play with a partner is like a marriage. You have to complement each other. Rocco would blend well with any of the players on the team now.
Do I think we can win? That’s a tall order against a tough European team, but I think being the underdog is an advantage for us. One reason we haven’t done well recently is that we expect too much of ourselves. I just keep thinking of 1999, when we rallied on the final day and erased a 4-point lead. That’s what happens when you stop putting pressure on yourself and start playing golf. I hope I see a repeat this year.
(Photo: Robert Beck/SI)