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Five years after losing to Tiger at the U.S. Open, Rocco Mediate is still talking about it

Rocco Mediate
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Five years after his famous playoff loss to Tiger Woods at the 2008 U.S. Open, Rocco Mediate is a regular on the Champions Tour.

FOX CHAPEL, Pa. — It happens every June, as regular as Father’s Day. When the United States Open rolls around, so do replays of Opens past.

One seems to get more play, though, than any of the others: the 2008 Open at Torrey Pines. That’s when Tiger Woods holed the clutch putt on the 72nd hole, howled to the moon, and then went on to beat the biggest underdog of all time, a guy named Rocco, in a Monday playoff that lasted 19 holes.

It’s been five years since that David vs. Goliath showdown, but it seems like just yesterday. And even though Rocco Mediate (that guy named Rocco) won six times during a successful PGA Tour career, including a couple of stellar titles at Doral and Phoenix, that playoff loss to Tiger is his defining moment. Five years later, not a day goes by…

“People still mention it to me every day,” Mediate said Tuesday morning said as he prepped for this week’s Constellation Senior Players Championship, a senior major, at the gloriously old-school Fox Chapel Golf Club. “Pretty much every day.”

It was riveting, because it was Woods, and because it was Rocco, a round-shouldered, round-in-the-middle kind of a guy with a lunch-box name. There were almost as many folks rooting for the underdog as for Tiger. That Rocco matched Tiger shot-for-shot made it even more compelling. Hence the frequent replays on Golf Channel almost any time of year.

“I’ve seen some of the replays,” Mediate said. “I keep losing. You’d think one time I’d make the putt or he’d miss, but it doesn’t happen. He wins every damn time.”

Mediate is an antsy personality who seems like he could shrug off just about anything. He is human Teflon. He is a fast-talker and a frequent talker who has joked for years about having ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder) and lately hinting that he may actually have it. The point is, he keeps plowing forward. Or tries to. That 2008 Open, though, is like a linchpin stuck in the middle of a map. It’s not going anywhere. And he’s fine with that, too.

“Sometimes, I’ll take a look at the replays,” he said. “It doesn’t bother me to watch it or talk about it.”

When he does stick it out and watch the whole thing, he tends to focus on the 71st hole. If there was a turning point, maybe that was it. “The match never really turned,” Mediate said. “It turned when I hit that tee shot into the bunker on the first extra hole Monday. On that 71st hole Sunday, I had an eight- or 10-footer down the hill. I knew if I made that putt, it’s over. I told my caddie, Matt, ‘Once this goes in, we’re done.’ I look at that putt a lot because I hit it just a touch too hard. It caught the edge of the cup but halfway there, I said, ‘This thing’s over, it’s going in. Maybe I shouldn’t have said that.’ ”

The Tiger-Rocco showdown raised Mediate’s profile exponentially. He was well known throughout golf, but the Torrey playoff made him a minor national celebrity. Which isn’t to say that everyone was watching, including his now-fiance Jess Somers, who kept hearing fans ask Mediate about Torrey Pines, but who had never seen the finish herself.

“So last Christmas, or maybe the year before, I put it on—the playoff round, the interviews, the whole thing,” Mediate said. “We sat there and watched. It was pretty much non-stop Niagara Falls for her.”

That’s Roccospeak for, she cried a lot. “I told her, ‘That’s what it was. And that’s why people bring it up.’ It was a pretty cool day.”

“Everyone expected destruction that Monday,” Mediate continues. “They expected me to just get murdered. I never thought that was going to happen, even when I was three strokes down. I thought, ‘If I just get my head out of my butt here, I’ll be fine.’ And I was one-up five holes later. That’s what changed it. If he’d beaten me by six, who cares? But all of a sudden, it was cuckoo there in the middle of the round. It was the loudest, most amazing four hours on a golf course in my life. You almost had to cover your ears waking between holes. There were 30,000 people following us, just us.”

The memory seems fresh but five years later, he’s just another budding Champions Tour player. He turned 50 in December, then won the Allianz Championship in his tour debut this year. He had a fifth- and two sixth-place finishes shortly after that but has struggled with his putting of late. Players who struggle on the greens on this tour end up with stampede marks on their backs. These guys are still good.

“My game is good but I haven’t made enough putts,” he said. “Therein lies the mediocre scores. My game is fine. It’s a cycle. I putted well the first four or five weeks and shot low scores. I’ve hit it just as well or better since and shot mediocre scores. I don’t need to go out there and kill myself. I’m putting more, but it’s just a cycle. In the old days, I’d be very distraught. But I’m not now.”

This is a relaxing week for Mediate. At least, it’ll start out that way. This is home. He grew up in nearby Greensburg, Pa., and has always been linked to the Pittsburgh area. His three sons from his first marriage live in Seattle now, while Mediate splits time between Minneapolis in the summer and Naples, Fla., in the winter. His parents still live in Greensburg. He is thriving on the weekly grind that is the Champions Tour. He likes keeping busy.

He also likes the classic style of Fox Chapel, a Seth Raynor design. “This has always been one of my favorite courses,” Mediate said. “I think this is the best we have in the city.”

That covers some ground, considering Oakmont isn’t far away. The golf itself may not be so relaxing because the seniors are looking at major-championship conditions. “The greens are way, way, way fast,” Mediate said. “They aren’t subtly tricky, they’re tricky-tricky. The rough is almost unplayable this week. Hopefully, I’ll drive it well.”

Driving is one of the things he does best. That, and talking. What ever happens this week, good or bad, Rocco will shake it off and move on, the tale of Tiger and Torrey Pines trailing closely behind.

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