Against all odds, Mediate has arrived, but even he’s not sure how he got here

Mediate stretched out during Thursday's round. He has had chronic back problems.
Robert Beck/SI

SOUTHPORT, ENGLAND — Rocco is bewildered. He has just spent five hours in the wind and rain at Royal Birkdale, and by all rights he should be soaking his feet in a bucket of Epsom salts and telling himself that 77 isn’t a bad score on a day when Ernie Els shoots 80 and the field averages 75.973. But here is Rocco, up on the platform, confessing to a first-round 69 in the Open Championship.

“I have no explanation for that,” he says with a laugh. “I have no idea why that happened.”

So he gives us the “what, where and when” of it. He describes his “I-just-was-trying-to-make-a-5” shot on 17, where he pitched in for birdie from a tangled hillside lie behind the green. He admits to having “really nothing today” from tee to green. He says, “I made pretty much every single putt I could have made today,” including a 40-footer for birdie on No. 13, a 15-footer for birdie on No. 18, and a bunch of others he drained for miracle pars. “Crazy stuff,” he says.

Stuff that he can’t explain.

Who can? The big yellow scoreboard above the 18th-hole grandstand has Rocco Mediate’s name at one under par along with co-leaders Graeme McDowell and Robert Allenby. This is the same Rocco Mediate who pushed Tiger Woods to his greatest glory last month in that 91-hole U. S. Open painfest at Torrey Pines. And it’s crazy because Rocco should be yesterday’s news.

No, really. He’s 45 years old. He hasn’t won a golf tournament in six years. His body is so creaky that a full-time therapist has to follow him around, picking up any pieces of cartilage and bone that fall off. Today, after 11 holes, Rocco had to stretch out on a patch of marron grass behind the eleventh green while the therapist — her name is Cindy Hilfman — helped him snap his sacroiliac back into place.

“Just normal stuff,” Rocco says from the platform, making light of a procedure that produces a cracking noise you can hear from across the fairway. “It just keeps it loose.”

But if you had asked Hilfman how her boy was feeling before he made the turn, she would have said, “Absolutely miserable. After the fifth hole he told me, ‘I can’t move.'” What Rocco needed, she went on, was an epidural steroid injection, but that is not permitted under Open Championship rules. “Cold weather and slow play is the worst combination,” she said, watching Rocco stretch in the fairway as he waited for a green to clear. “He needs surgery, but he can’t take a year off.”

You have to ask: “That injection – where does the needle go?”

“Right into the spine,” she replies. “It’s really not very fun.”

So here’s Rocco on the platform, searching for answers, and the first one that comes to mind is Cindy. (“She hates when I say that, but she’s the one who put my back where it belongs.”) The second is his swing coach, Jimmy Ballard. (“He’s a genius as far as the back is concerned.”) And the third answer is — surprise — his near-success against Tiger at Torrey Pines.

“I think [the duel with Tiger] has done nothing but make me better,” Rocco says, “even though I did not win the tournament. Yeah, he’s the best player in the world, but that’s what you want to go up against. I’d like to do it every week.”

Which is crazy, right? You don’t find your game at 45, you don’t lead majors with a back that goes out more often than Paris Hilton, and you certainly don’t wake up in England to find your photo in The Independent under the headline, “The People’s Champion.”

Unless you’re Rocco, who maybe has found something in himself that was there all along. Something that just needed the proper nurturing.

“I don’t feel like I’m on my way out,” Rocco says, still flashing that bewildered grin. “I feel like it’s just starting again.”

And so it is. Inexplicably.