Rocco Mediate might have lost the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines last year to Tiger Woods, but he won a legion of fans who were transfixed by the sight of a middle-aged journeyman going 91 holes with the champ in the most uplifting second-place finish since Rocky Balboa lost the decision to Apollo Creed but won Adrian’s heart in the original Rocky. (Don’t underestimate Italian guys from Pennsylvania.)
So it’s natural that with the 2009 U.S. Open (and Father’s Day) coming in a couple weeks that Mediate has a new book, Are You Kidding Me?, co-authored with John Feinstein, an accomplished sportswriter who remains drawn to stories from the PGA Tour and college basketball. If you’re like me and think that Tiger Woods’s win over Mediate at Torrey Pines was the most-gripping sporting event of the last 20 years, then you’ll enjoy Rocco’s version of those five days in June, especially the 19-hole playoff on Monday which depressed trading on Wall Street as stockbrokers gathered in front of televisions to watch.
The book does a nice job of recreating the heady atmosphere of Torrey Pines last June, where the striking oceanfront setting, the postcard weather and the two riveting protagonists gave the tournament a movie-like feel. When Tiger hit that bumpy 12-foot putt on 18 on Sunday to force the Monday playoff, more than a few fans thought Is this really happening?
Despite Mediate’s co-author credit, Feinstein smartly keeps the narration in the third person (no I, Rocco here), and in the opening pages Feinstein paints the setting — Torrey Pines, Mediate’s career, and the peculiarities of the U.S. Open — in a few masterful strokes. After the dutiful recounting of Mediate’s childhood and road to Q-School, which includes a candid and painful account of Mediate getting hazed by his college golf team, Are You Kidding Me? really takes off when we get back to Torrey Pines. While the book sometimes gets caught in the almost unavoidable “he parred the first, he birdied the second, he bogeyed the third” rut, Feinstein collects enough telling details from Mediate that you’ll race through the pages until Woods wins on the first sudden-death hole. For example, I didn’t know Mediate almost mistakenly picked up a ball in play on that final hole and would have been DQ’d if a USGA official hadn’t yelled at Mediate to stop.
Two things are missing from this book though. The first of course is Woods, who even through Mediate’s eyes remains as impervious as a slab of granite. In the book’s unusually melancholy coda, Mediate, already disappointed by not making the Ryder Cup team, sounds hurt that Woods didn’t invite him to his pre-Christmas tournament in California.
More surprisingly, the other thing absent is Mediate. The guy full of good-natured bravado and general goofiness at Torrey Pines, wearing a peace sign belt buckle and calling out Woods in the media tent doesn’t appear in these pages as often as you’d expect. My guess is that Feinstein the journalist might have presented Mediate as a little more peculiar than Feinstein the co-author did. Also, Mediate’s authorship means that the more provocative stuff in the book — whether Mediate’s poker-playing and drinking led to his divorce and his new relationship with the woman who helped treat his bad back — gets glossed over. Which all goes to show, if you want to protect your privacy, write an autobiography.