U.S. Open: Rocco, Tiger & Torrey Pines
This week, the South Course at Torrey Pines in San Diego will stage the U.S. Open for the second time, 13 years after its debut produced one of the most exciting national championships ever played. Rocco Mediate, a surprise contender that week, spoke to Robin Barwick
When Rocco Mediate faced Tiger Woods in an 18-hole play-off to decide the 2008 U.S. Open, they said there was more chance of snow falling in San Diego in June than there was of Mediate lifting the U.S. Open trophy.
Woods was ranked No. 1 in the world by a mile; Mediate was ranked 158th going into the championship. Woods was in his prime at 32; Mediate was a PGA Tour veteran at 45. Mediate had not won on the PGA Tour for six years, and during that six-year stretch Woods had claimed 41 PGA Tour titles. Woods was playing injured—with a double stress fracture in his left leg, we would later discover—but still, the two golfers combined to produce one of the most riveting chapters in the history of America’s oldest championship.
“There was not a single TV announcer who thought I had a chance,” recalls Mediate, who exudes as much energy today, aged 58, as he did in trying to become the oldest U.S. Open champ ever. “I kept laughing, going, ‘What, are you people crazy?’ I was not missing my target very often that week and that is what this game is. This game is about where the ball is going, and I was making the ball go where I was looking.”
If Mediate had taken one of two birdie chances at the last two holes of regulation the play-off would never have happened. He was so close. Agonizingly close. Instead, Woods did hole out for birdie at the 72nd hole to match Mediate’s score of 283, one under par.
“Nobody else in the world holes that putt on 18,” says Mediate. “I mean nobody.”
One of the finest public golf courses in the world, with panoramic, clifftop views over the Pacific Ocean, Torrey Pines was the perfect stage, bathed in the summer sun, for one of the most famous U.S. Opens, on what was the longest majors golf course ever, at 7,600 yards. When it came to the finish, it didn’t need social media to go viral.
Mediate slipped three shots back after 10 holes of the play-off, as widely expected, but then he ripped up the script and his challenge took off. Mediate started holing putts just as Woods started to falter, and as the golfers walked off the 14th green they were tied on strokes with four holes to play. It was a good job the South Course at Torrey Pines didn’t have a roof.
“When we walked from the 14th green to the 15th tee I had to cover my ears because they hurt because the noise was so loud,” says Mediate, 13 years later. “I remember every single second of that day. The smells, the people, the screaming. There were 25,000 fans following just two golfers. It was unbelievable and I will never go through that kind of experience again. I mean, how many times are you going to get ‘The Man’ in a play-off for the national open? It was a one-off.”
Ultimately, one of the great Cinderella stories of modern sports was not to be. Mediate missed a 20-foot putt to win at the 90th hole, and then couldn’t match Woods’ par at the first hole of sudden-death play. Mediate became the oldest runner-up in the U.S. Open since 50-year-old Harry Vardon back in 1920.
“I loved it,” says Mediate, a six-time winner of the PGA Tour and four-time champ on the PGA Tour Champions. “I got to do something I wanted: to take on Tiger when it really mattered. I always loved the U.S. Open. It is my favorite event, so there I was with the chance to try and beat that guy in my favorite event. It can’t be topped, win or lose.”
Said Mike Davis, CEO of the USGA: “I didn’t want to see either player lose that U.S. Open. If there was a way we could have offered that trophy to both of them it would have been a great thing.”
“Rocco’s not only one of the nicest guys, but people don’t realize how much of a competitor he is,” said Woods at the time. “He’s a hell of a player.”
It was the third U.S. Open title of Woods’ career, and his 14th major success overall. No-one could have predicted at the time that it would be another 11 years before Woods would win his 15th major, which came at the 2019 Masters.
“Great players do a lot of really interesting things,” adds Mediate. “They don’t only win tournaments one way. They win when they hit the ball all over the golf course, or they win by making every putt they look at, or sometimes by hitting the ball perfect. Well, Tiger won tournaments all those different ways, and the week of that U.S. Open he won despite hitting the ball sideways. When we played our 18 holes he was all over the place, literally, but he recovered beautifully and made a bunch of putts and that is what the great ones do.
“I was shocked by how far off line some of his shots were, even though I knew he was hurt, but I wasn’t shocked to see him recover each time.”
Mediate may have been the underdog in 2008 and a popular, valiant runner-up—so popular that he got the call to go on the Leno show—but don’t tell him he had nothing to lose. Woods’ caddie Steve Williams said it and he was one of many.
“It hurt like hell to lose and it hurt for a while,” says Mediate. “You ask yourself if you are ever going to get that close again. I had been close before but this time I had that baby halfway in my hands, and so it hurt for a while. A lot of people said I didn’t have anything to lose but I was like, ‘Yeah, right: I lost the most coveted thing ever, the U.S. Open trophy.’ People don’t really know what they are talking about when they say dumb sh*t like that.”
Connected by steel
Mediate loved baseball as a kid, growing up in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, 30 miles east of Pittsburgh and 10 miles west of Latrobe. He had a strong arm and he pitched, like his dad, who had thrown in the Pittsburgh Pirates farm system. Mediate took up golf as a teenager after some of his Little League teammates started playing at Greensburg Country Club. “I could always hit a ball with a stick,” he says.
One day in 1982, the 19-year-old Mediate got a call from some friends to get over to Latrobe CC for a money game. Play golf and make some money while you’re at it? Mediate hopped into his little Honda and within 15 minutes was walking through the parking lot at Latrobe Country Club, where Arnold Palmer had grown up and, by this time in 1982, he was also the owner.
“Chris Adams and Danny Bonar were good buddies and they had been dear friends of Arnold Palmer’s for a long time,” says Mediate. “They used to tell me they would get me a game with Mr. Palmer but I was so shy then that I didn’t want to play with him. The last thing I wanted to do was play golf in front of Mr. Palmer.
“I walk around the corner and I see Mr. Palmer on the tee. I immediately went to turn around because I thought, ‘I’m outta here.’ Then Chris calls over, ‘Hey, Roc, come on up!’ Now I was stuck. I couldn’t leave because Mr. Palmer had seen me. I walked up there and as soon as Mr. Palmer shook my hand, every nervous bone in my body went away. He said, ‘Roc, it’s a pleasure to meet you. I have heard a lot about you. Let’s go and play.’ And we did.”
“Since then I spent hours and hours with Mr. Palmer in his office and we played countless rounds together, at Latrobe, at Bay Hill and every once in a while he would come over for a game at Greensburg. He would fly over in his helicopter, it was hilarious, because God forbid if he drove for 10 minutes!”
Palmer took the rising star under his wing, and when Palmer made his final bow in the U.S. Open in 1994 at Oakmont, just outside the Steel City, the USGA paired him with Mediate, who was by then established on the PGA Tour, although struggling with crippling back troubles.
“I could hardly walk that week because my back was so bad, but there was no way I was going to miss playing with Mr. Palmer in his last Open. The USGA asked me, ‘Are you going to be able to play?’ I said, ‘I’ll find a way.’
“As we played Mr. Palmer’s last hole on the Friday, I held everybody back to watch him walk up to the green. It was an amazing sight. When I got up to the green I said to him, ‘This is all because of you,’ and Mr. Palmer lost it. That was when he started to cry.”
The tears continued when Palmer walked into his press conference and the packed room broke with convention to offer a standing ovation.
By the time of the 2008 U.S. Open, Mediate had been friends with Palmer for more than 25 years.
“After the U.S. Open, the first thing Mr. Palmer said to me was: ‘You handled yourself beautifully. I know you wanted to win. We wanted you to win, but for the way you played and the way you showed yourself I am very proud of you.’ That was the way he behaved and he thought that if he could do it then everybody else could too. That was big for Mr. Palmer. I tried to be like him but of course you can’t actually achieve it. I try to treat people the way he did.”
We can’t expect the 2021 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines to produce sporting drama to match Tiger versus Rocco, but every championship weaves its own unique story, and the fun is never quite knowing the ending until it happens.