HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. Is golf the most fickle game of all? Of course. Meet Exhibit A: Rocco Mediate, 45. He went from Masters contender two years ago to just another Masters television viewer this year.
You may remember Mediate's meteoric '06 Masters. He led the tournament when he stepped to the ninth tee on Sunday. He then dunked three balls into Rae's Creek on the 12th hole although CBS mercifully didn't show all of them en route to a 10 that officially ended his run. Mediate knew his hopes were over at the ninth, actually, when his 8-iron approach shot clanged the flagstick and caromed off the green. His troublesome bad back blew up on that shot and as Mediate remembers, "I almost didn't make it up the hill." He practically crawled to the finish, shot 80, and plummeted to 36th place.
He bounced back (no pun intended) from his spinal issues last year after a long, hard wave of rehab for his body and a retooling for his swing by Jimmy Ballard. He also got a key assist from frequent golf buddy Arnold Palmer, who offered an exemption to his Bay Hill tournament. There Mediate finished second and won enough money to keep his exempt status after a medical exemption. He went on to rack up $1.1 million. It was a pretty good year, just not good enough to him back to Augusta.
"I told Cindi [his physical therapist], I can't watch it," Mediate said of the Masters telecast. "She said, 'Watch it, you should watch it, go watch it.' So I did. It was a devastating thing when my back happened. You don't get many opportunities to win a Masters. I know if I could've finished, I might not have won but I would've given it a shot. I would've much rather shot 75 or 80 because I stunk. That would've been easier to take. But my body just laid down on me. That really sucked."
Things are looking up in Rocco's world. His back is feeling better, obviously, since he has already played in 12 tournaments. At Harbour Town, possibly his favorite track, he made only his fourth cut of the year. Better still, he junked his long putter Friday in favor of a conventional short model and suddenly ran in seven birdie putts en route to a 65. It may be just the thing to spark the continuation of "Rocky 6," as Rocco dubbed last year's comeback run. He posted 71-72 on the weekend to finish at two under par.
"I've been hitting it great all year, and now the putting has improved immensely," said Mediate, who finished tied for 36th at the Verizon Heritage Classic. "I know when I'm healthy, I can play with these guys, and I'm healthy now. It's all good."