ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) – Rocco Mediate was 19 when he met Arnold Palmer. They have played golf more times than he can remember. He has sat in Palmer’s office on countless occasions seeking advice. He feels as though he can ask Palmer for anything.
But not a tee time at the Bay Hill Invitational.
He wanted to earn that exemption.
Mediate, a five-time PGA Tour winner who shares western Pennsylvania roots with Palmer, was coming off one of his worst seasons and certainly one of his lowest moments in his career. He has always had back issues, and it flared up in April right when he had a chance to win the Masters. He played sparingly the rest of the year, and needed a minor medical exemption to get his card.
That meant missing the marquee events – such as the Arnold Palmer Invitational – unless he got an exemption.
“I want you to do me a favor,” Mediate said he told Palmer during a visit late last year. “I want you to monitor my play for the next couple of weeks. If you think I deserve to be at your golf tournament, I’ll take it.”
Mediate had his best week at Riviera, finishing ninth at the Nissan Open.
He got an exemption to Bay Hill.
And he’s not done proving himself to the King.
With birdies on two of the toughest holes Friday, Mediate endured wind and rain on his way to a 5-under 65 that gave him a three-shot lead over Paul Casey and John Rollins going into the weekend – big enough for him to dream.
Twenty-five years after meeting Palmer for the first time, imagine Mediate meeting him on the 18th green Sunday with the trophy.
“It would be pretty interesting to see if I could even talk,” said Mediate, and that might be the biggest shock because the 44-year-old can rarely keep his flap shut. “It would just be ridiculous. I wouldn’t know what to do. But it would be fun to find out.”
Mediate is still halfway home to a handshake with his hero.
He was at 9-under 131, three shots clear of Casey (70) and Rollins (65). Another shot back at 5-under 135 was a group that included two major champions (Ben Curtis and Shaun Micheel), the Players champion (Stephen Ames), Sergio Garcia and Vaughn Taylor.
Tiger Woods was still around, barely.
Tied for the lead after a 64 in the first round, Woods hooked one tee shot into the water and hit plenty of others into the rough. He closed with four tough pars for a 73, leaving him six shots behind and in no mood to look for silver linings.
He was asked after his round whether he could take any positives away from it.
“Yeah,” Woods said. “I broke 80. That’s about the only thing. I hit some of the worst, God-awful shots you’ve ever seen in your life today. It was pathetic.”
Then came a question seeking specifics, and it was one of the few times Friday that Woods delivered.
“My takeaway. My downswing. Backswing. Club selection. Mind process,” he said. “You name it, I did everything wrong today.”
There was some good news out of such a wretched day.
“At least I’m still in contention,” he said. “Now I’ve got to clean it up. Big time.”
Mediate’s golf was far more inspiring.
He showed his sarcasm by saying the 16th was his easiest hole, converted to a par 4 at 485 yards. He hit driver and 3-wood into 20 feet and made the birdie, which last year would have been an eagle, and to Mediate felt even better than that.
Equally impressive was the ninth, which played at 462 yards into a stiff breeze, with clouds spewing the occasional shower. Mediate hit a 4-iron from 185 yards into about 3 feet for the finish he wanted.
As well as he hit the ball in the opening round, Woods was that much off under shifting winds. He dropped shots on two of the first four holes, then took double bogey on No. 6 with a tee shot into the water. The rest of the day was a grind, as he rarely gave himself good looks at birdie and more often had to scramble for par.
Others took a shot at the early pace set by Mediate.
Taylor got within one shot with five holes to play until failing to get up-and-down behind the fifth green and getting blocked by the trees on the eighth hole, setting up another bogey. Casey birdied two of his first three holes until the weather got fickle, along with his tee shots.
“The goal was always to put myself in the mix of things and hopefully have a chance on Sunday afternoon,” Casey said. “So I’m very happily placed.”
So is Mediate. This is the first time he has had the lead on the weekend since the third round of Greensboro in 2002, which also was his last PGA Tour victory.
At his age, with his health, Mediate knows opportunities like this won’t come along very often.
And doing it at Arnie’s place would be over the top.
The first time he had an audience with the King was in 1982. A couple of buddies told him they had a money game at Latrobe and to come over, so Mediate dumped his regulars at Greensburg Country Club. He arrived and saw an imposing figure on the first tee.
“I almost turned around,” Mediate said. “I was so nervous I almost turned around and got back in the car and left. I said, ‘You know what? The hell with it. So I went up, and the first time I met him, it was like he had known me for a 100 years. He makes you feel that way.”