Rocco Mediate sits down for a Q&A with GOLF LIVE’s Ryan Asselta, revealing new details from his 2008 U.S. Open showdown against Tiger Woods and explaining how he believes he could fix Tiger’s swing.
You won your first major title a few weeks ago at the Senior PGA. How did that feel?
Unbelievable. I can’t believe it actually happened. It’s been a bad couple years. I was trying to get back to where I used to be, and I got in shape decently, for me, and I felt like I could do it. And we got it done. But you can’t predict that. That was insane. Everything came together perfect. I had Colin [Montgomerie] and Kenny [Perry] the first two rounds. And I’m like, “You know, this is going to be exciting to see if I can hang with these guys.” And that’s almost more important than the title itself is with the guys you play with.
Was there a moment out there coming down the stretch where it kind of hit you?
Nothing hit me until I hit my second shot out of the right bunker on 18 to the front of the green. I knew I couldn’t really lose unless I fell down and broke my leg. But I never let it get ahead of me, because when you do that, you lose.
You’ve dealt with chronic back issues for many years. How much more would you have won if it wasn’t for that back?
A little bit more. But, I would say that if I putted as good as I do now, it’d be a lot more. Because I think I putt better now the last couple of years than I’ve ever putted in my entire career. So I would have won more just because of that. Not 100, but maybe two or three times more than I won.
What’s been the key to putting so much better now?
Just trying to learn more about it and spend more time with it. I never spent that much time with it. I was obviously a decent putter all those years, but I was never great. God doesn’t give you all of it. I could hit it as good as most people, but I could never putt it. Or my short game wasn’t as good. Now, that’s all better than everything else. So you throw a sprinkling of good shots in, sometimes it adds up to low scores.
As for your PGA Tour wins, how gratifying was it in 2010, after losing the ’08 U.S. Open to Tiger and battling back problems, to come out of nowhere and win the Frys.com Open?
What you just mentioned is what everybody else forgets except for me. If I don’t win Frys, my last hurrah on the PGA Tour would have been a second-place finish in Minnesota. Not the worst thing in the world. But winning Frys again on the PGA Tour was huge. It saved my career. The fact that you brought it up is kind of cool, because no one ever asked me about Frys. It was huge for me.
It’s interesting, not only what you had gone through, but you weren’t playing great golf.
Three weeks before Frys I was starting to play good. I could see it coming. Did I think I was going to win? Of course not. And then all of a sudden, bang, everything worked out, and it exempted me through 50. So I basically played from the time I was 22 years old right through 50. Never stopped, except for a couple years for a back injury.
Let’s say I missed that putt to win [the Fys.com] and lose in the playoff, I’m off the tour. I was playing with a torn tendon that week — by the way, no one knows that.
So I couldn’t play anymore after that. So if I would have not made the putt, lost in the playoff, I couldn’t go to Tour school, I couldn’t play anymore. So the whole thing was over. I would have had to ask for sponsor exemptions. I had had some exemptions, but I don’t want to take spots from the kids that are out there now. I already had my spots.
It was huge. I can’t believe you asked me that question. That’s awesome. No one talks about the Frys.
Obviously, your most high-profile moment was that ’08 Open.
As it should have been.
Arguably, the best U.S. Open of modern times.
A lot of people say that, yeah.
Do you think it is? You have a first-hand account of it.
You know what it was? It was this. Everybody and their mother knew that I was going to get killed, except for me. And when I woke up on Monday morning, I knew I was going to win, because I was better than [Woods] through the air. U.S. Opens are all about through the air, where the ball was going. Fairways and greens. And I had him by the ass. Putting-wise, I was pretty good, obviously. But nobody was as good as him.
So I remember saying in the press room the night before the playoff. I said, “Look. You guys think I’m going to get my butt handed to me — my ass handed to me. And I totally understand. But we’re going to give you a show tomorrow.” So I’m three down through 10. I don’t think I’ve ever said this [in an interview]. I said to my caddy, “Matthew, I am done with this s—. If I do exactly what I want to do in these last seven or eight holes, I got him.”
And Matthew looked, and he went, “What?” I said, “Let’s go.” And when I went to 16 tee, I was one up. I wasn’t surprised. I played absolutely like I wanted to play. And then on 17, good par. He made a good par. At 18, I couldn’t reach the green. He hit it on the green. Two-putted. I made a mistake on 7. Over. But, that’s when it got interesting to the world, because three down through 10, you lose by 8. Everybody else loses by 8.
What was it that triggered that rally?
I was pissed off. And my father said something to me. He goes, “I saw your eyes.” I missed about a four-foot par putt on 10 to go three down. Hit a s—– chip. You know, easy to miss, but I missed it. Tiger made a 20-footer for par.
So I’m three down. And my dad goes, “When I saw you walk off 10 green, the camera was on you,” and he said, “I knew that you weren’t done.” I was so mad at myself that I couldn’t stand, and I went, “I am not losing. I’m going to beat this guy. If I do what I want the last eight holes, it’s over.” I got him. And I just absolutely didn’t miss.
I knew 18 was going to be an issue, because I can’t reach the green. He can reach with a four iron, which he did. Anyway, I hit it a little bit left on 7 [in sudden death]. Game over. I mean, it sucked that I lost. It was awful. It bothered me for a long time. But, I didn’t lose because A) I choked, or B) I wasn’t that good. If I three-putt the last two holes and lose by one, my career’s over. It’s happened. You’ve seen it, right?
But I didn’t. If I double-bogeyed the last hole to lose by one, my career’s over. That didn’t happen. I made a mistake in the playoff — that bad swing happens. I can live with that. We went 91 holes. I wish we were still playing, that’s how much fun it was.
What was he like on that first tee of the playoff? Was there much rapport between you two?
Yeah, I had him laughing. He had his tee shot on 1. You know, he played number 1 54 over par for the first four rounds. Hit it left and made doubles and triples. This day, he drives it down the right side, hits the right edge of the bunker and kicks it in the fairway. I went, “Oh, today, sure, you’re driving the fairway.” He almost went to his knees.
That was the most fun day I’ve ever had playing golf against anybody, especially the best player that ever lived, in our national open. I mean, how do you draw that up?
But I beat him in ’99, the Phoenix, played with him the last two rounds. And that’s after back surgery in ’95, He came up to me on the 18th, and he goes, “Roc, it’s nice to see you back.” That’s all you ever want to hear from someone like that. The trophy’s great. The money. But what he said, forget it.
So, I was never afraid to play with him. I was never afraid to play against him. You figure you play Tiger 10 times in his heyday, you’re going to lose nine. What about that other one? You see? I got one of them. I just didn’t get the big one. So I knew when I went out Monday, I can beat this guy. Because I’m better through the air now. Right now I am.
And I was. I beat everybody through the air and fairways and greens that week statistic-wise. But, the greatest players of all time, which he is, figure out a way to get it done. And that’s why I never had any bad feelings that me made putts. Of course he’s going to make the putt on the 72nd hole.
You said the same thing that day, right? You knew he was going to make it on the 72nd hole.
Of course he is. Anybody else out there, I got the trophy, guaranteed. But it wasn’t. It was him. So I’m looking, going, “Well, s—. He’s making this. So I’ve got to get ready for tomorrow.” And when he made it, it shocked me, but it didn’t shock me at all, if that makes any sense.
It actually does make sense.
When it went in, I went, “Oh, yeah. I figured he’d do that. Son of a b—-.” But, you know, you can only do what you can do. I mean, if you make big mistakes under the gun, it ruins careers. It hurt me for a while. How many chances do I have to win the U.S. Open? I had a couple in my career. But, the way I lost was OK with me.
The stuff that he did that day and that week — that’s Tiger Woods. I mean, I’m sorry. People get mad when I talk nice about him, but I love the guy. I love the way he played golf. I wish he would come back. Golf needs him more than you can possibly fathom. Nobody moves the needle. He can go out to a Web.com event, and there’d be a 100,000 people watching him play, because he’s Tiger Woods. It’s that simple.
Isn’t it hard to believe we’re almost eight years to the day since he won his last major championship?
I said something to my buddy, Dave Reneker, at Bel Air Country Club about a month after the  Open. He’s a club champ. Good buddy. We’re sitting there having a drink or two, and he goes, “Well, s—, next year, he’s got it made.” I said, “Dude, there’s no chance it’s going to happen. I’ll tell you what — a thousand bucks a major.” This was in 2008. We haven’t paid, because he owes me a fortune. I’ll never collect it, because I don’t want to. But, a thousand bucks a major he won’t win one again unless he changes his golf swing. Well, he hasn’t changed his golf swing. And what’s happened since? It hasn’t surprised me at all.
Because the golf ball’s going sideways. What he did at Torrey was remarkable. Not because of me, but where he hit it. There’s no way he beats me. Impossible. But he did. My point is I knew this would never happen again unless he fixed his golf swing. Why do you think his back’s gone out? Why do you think he’s got 18,000 surgeries? Because his golf swing is not right. And the people that are teaching him are not right. I’ve said it for eight years.
You’ve been outspoken about people around him.
And guess what? I’ll say it again. Come see me. I’ll fix you. Fifteen minutes and about a month of work. Not a big deal. His back injuries are not even close to what mine were. I’m nothing in the world of golf, OK? I’m not even a tenth of the athlete this kid is. You mean to tell me we can’t make him better, as good a shape as he’s in? Are you kidding me? It’s a walk in the park. It’s like walking your dog going over the green. It’s easy. He’s that easy to make better. But he keeps going to the wrong people.
What would you do if you had him for an hour?
Well, we’d fix set-ups. We’d fix what he thinks motion is. We’d take the stress off all the twisting and all the up-and-down motion he has. It’s insane. The spine is being compressed constantly. Our disks are like rubber tires, like inner tubes. When you put pressure on the inner tubes forever, they burst, like a tire on a bike. You know those little bubbles you get in the bike when we were kids? That’s what his disks have done. We take that out. We keep him tall. He’ll hit it further, straighter and better. Simple as that.
But these guys don’t know what they’re doing. It started in ’03 or ’04, and continued since. It makes me sick to my stomach because I love the guy, I love the way he played, and he was like what Arnold did back in the day. No one will be like Mr. Palmer, but he moved the needle like Mr. Palmer moved the needle. Remember the last tournament he played at Greensboro?
The Wyndham, sure.
There were 47 billion people watching him. But, it was a fake, because he hit it all over the golf course. He knows that. You see where he hit it, and you’re going, “What? Where? What happened to the other guy,” where he could just do that and hit it on the green and make everything he looked at. It’s so sad.
Does he ever come back?
It’s a smart move pulling out of the Open, because you don’t want to go there when you don’t know where your ball’s going. Oakmont is evil in a good way. But, it’s sad to me because it shouldn’t take this long. I know bad injuries more than probably anybody out there right now, I promise you. I know how to get around them.
But, my point is, think about it, the best player that ever walked on grass, in my opinion, we get his back out of the issue, do you think he forgot how to win? He only won 78 of them.
If his back is straightened out can he win again on the PGA Tour?
If we can get his golf swing back on track. No matter how good mentally you are, and I believe this to the nth degree, if your golf swing is sideways, guess where the ball is going? It’s physics. You can’t beat physics, unless you’re on the moon. But, we’ve got gravity. So we have physics that interfere with our game.
I don’t care how good he is up here [points to his head], if the golf swing’s all over the place like he does, it’s going all over the place. But, if we get the son of a b—- where it belongs, he’s going to go, “OK, these guys think they can beat me now? It’s not going to happen.” No one’s ever won with the amount of veracity and nastiness that this kid won at. Nobody. Who’s winning like that now? Name one guy.
Many pros today are friends with each other.
They’re all going, “Oh, I need to have some more greens and I got to go workout 18 times today. I got to have chicken and broc.” Kiss my butt. Shoot me a score. You’ve got four hours on a golf course. How much shape do you have to be in? I think it’s cool that they’re friends, but he wasn’t friends with them.
No, he was not.
He wanted to kill you and then step on your neck, and then burn you. You know, throw a match on it with lighter fluid. That’s how much he wanted to kill you. And he did. Nobody won with the percentages this kid did. Nobody. And no one ever will. You can talk about all these guys. I love these kids. I love Jordan [Speith], I love Jason [Day], I love Rickie [Fowler], I love Rory [McIlroy]. I love them. Forget it. It’s not even the same sport this kid played. It just was a different game. You know, what Jordan does is impressive because he does it normal by not overpowering anything. He’s really good. Rory is Tiger-like.
Rory can hit it a mile.
Rory’s like an 8 handicap compared to Tiger’s short game. Sorry. Same with Jason Day. If we’re talking about Jason Day’s short game, you can’t. Sorry. Not even close to Tiger’s. But, Jason is going to be awesome. He obviously is awesome. But, how old is he now?
And he’s got one major? Comparatively, what happened there? What’s going on? But, Jason, to his credit, is using Tiger. Not using, but using Tiger’s career and talking with Tiger to try to figure it out. And to Tiger’s credit, he’s going, “Yeah, do this, do that.” And it’s helping. But, he’s got one major. Tiger had like a thousand by then.
But, the fact that Tiger’s where he is, is nauseating to me. I know back injuries. I’ll take on any doctor you want to take on with the golf swing. What do you do to make it better? How do you get the stress off the spine? Simple. And Tiger once hit it far. He’ll hit it farther than he ever hit it in his life by doing certain things and taking the stress off all this. I know, believe me.
I don’t mind talking about him, but it just makes me mad that he’s not where he should be at 40 years old. I mean, it’s disgusting. It’s so sad to me because, first of all, love him or hate him, he’s a good kid. He’s still a kid to me — he’s 13 years younger. And his body failed him because of the teachings that he had. Period.
Period, end of story.
Do you think he’s afraid to go out there and win? S—. You get him to where he can find his ball again, they’ve never played with him like that.
Today’s new stars have never played with Tiger at his best.
I remember walking up to him during the Open, even when he was hurt. Or, before that in some other tournaments. You’re looking at him, going, “How in the hell? I mean, how am I going to go up against that?” It’s not going to happen. But, guess what? It can, because that doesn’t make you play better. It just makes you in better shape. It makes me sick to my stomach that he’s still not there. It’s one of the worst stories in sports.
It’s almost unprecedented in sports history.
But, it was a physical collapse, not a mental. I believe it’s physical. I saw it happen in 2005 at Pinehurst. OK, last story: Pinehurst, second- or third-to last group on Sunday. I got Tiger again. I’m so happy. I’m so nervous, obviously, because he’s Tiger.
But, we go out and play. We get in the first hole. I’m up first. I drive perfectly with the driver. This is when he just starting working with Haney. And if doesn’t like it, he can kiss my ass, too, OK? I saw a three-wood off the first tee go 30 yards right of the first cut of rough and go right from there. With a three-wood. Into the s—. Thirty, forty, fifty yards offline.
I said to my caddie, Brandon, I went, “You see that? Did you see how it got over there?” So, all day it’s like this. Of course, he shoots 70 and finishes third. I finish fifth, ecstatic.
But, I’m going, “What the hell is going on here? What the hell is he doing?” That was the beginning of the end. Because if he’s Tiger, he wins the golf tournament that day. No question. He shot 70 and couldn’t find his ball half the day. I hit every green and fairway — well, most of the greens and fairways, and shot 71 or 72.
That’s when I saw it start. And it got worse and worse since. And now he can’t play golf? Are you kidding me? This guy could lift up this tent and throw it over onto the driving range without any problem. His back hurts? Of course it does, because it’s all this crap they’re teaching him. If his papa was around, he’d have won 25 to 30 majors by now, I assure you right now. That’s my opinion.