On Wednesday night, on his HBO program, Bob Costas is dedicating 90 minutes to an extraordinary sports year. The first airing will be live and will feature an all-star team: Ryan Howard of the Philadelphia Phillies, Roger Federer, Michael Phelps, Tiger Woods and … Rocco Mediate. A nice lineup, but when it’s all over I predict Mr. Bob will reach this conclusion: he could have done the whole thing with Roc. To steal a line from Roger Angell, Mediate is a career .400 talker.
I spent some time with him recently — on the phone, at a golf event, in a hospital room — for a story and found him to be extraordinary: truthful and open and confident and vulnerable. In short, a real person. He’s not pretending that his life is perfect. He is trying to figure it out. I find that admirable.
Talking about his 19-hole playoff with Tiger Woods for the U.S. Open trophy in June, he described the smell of the eucalyptus trees, a boat out on the horizon, a 5-iron shot he played to the 15th green in the playoff that looked like a nice-enough shot on TV but was, to his mind, one of the best shots of his life because of the quality of the swing and the sweetness of the strike. John Feinstein is writing a book about him now. He should have a field day.
Mediate has had only a couple of brief exchanges with Woods about the playoff, and he says “I can’t wait, I cannot wait” to hear what Woods has to say about it. Woods told him it was a good “fight” when it was all over, and Mediate treasures that. He says the 15-footer Woods rolled in on the 72nd hole to force the playoff “was an absolutely perfect putt.” Many people who saw the putt on TV thought Tiger hit it too hard, or too far right, and it moved in strange and miraculous ways to get in the hole. Rocco takes a different view: the ball hit spike marks that knocked it off-line and then back on-line, and Woods would have found the hole even on a perfect green “because that’s what Tiger does.” Mediate says he got a great putting lesson watching that putt go in: you don’t try to make the putt, you try to make the perfect stroke. If you make the perfect stroke, the results will take care of themselves.
Writing about Rocco was complicated by his relationship with his physical therapist, Cindi Hilfman, which defies easy categorization. She is married and has a son, and Rocco refers to her as his “best friend.” She is also fighting a rare and complicated kidney disease. I have heard from readers who want to know what I didn’t put in the story about their relationship. My view is Rocco’s private life is his private life. What he was willing to share with me is what I put in. Hilfman’s work as a therapist — on his back and on his head, too — gave his career, and maybe his life, a second act it might not have had otherwise. How would any of us feel about a person who did that for us? I don’t pretend to understand it. What I could tell was that it was powerful. As best I could determine, Mediate and Hilfman are a team.
“I worked out of a negative place all my life,” Mediate said to me at one point, explaining how Hilfman had improved his life. “I would challenge myself with negative stuff. I’d say, ‘I’m the worst putter ever — now I’m going to work my way out of it.'” Tiger, Mediate said, doesn’t work that way. “That putt he hit on the 72nd hole, and every shot he hits, it’s the same thing,” Mediate said. Just put the best swing you can on it.
In ’99, Mediate won the Phoenix Open with Woods in pursuit. It was Mediate’s first win since his back surgery in ’94. Woods said to Mediate, “Roc, it’s nice to see you’re back.” Mediate was impressed then by the poise shown by a golfer who was essentially a kid. In the Open playoff, there was only modest fist-pumping from Woods. Mediate took that as a sign of respect, too.
When the 18-hole Monday playoff ended in a tie, Woods and Mediate went to No. 7 at Torrey Pines, where Mediate had struggled all week. But Rocco said this was not evidence of a USGA conspiracy to help Woods win. “They told us before the playoff began that that’s where we would go if we were all tied after 18,” Mediate said. “We were both like, ‘Right, we’ll be tied after 18.'” But it made the most sense. It’s the hole closest to 18, and it’s easiest on the galleries and everything else. He played the hole six times in five days: four pars and two bogeys, the last of which cost him the Open. “My chest moved sideways on that last swing” with the driver, Mediate said. The shot went into the left fairway bunker. The day was over.
Rocco was a winner for how he handled everything leading up to that moment, and after it, too.