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Rocco's Revenge

After an amazing 18-hole U.S. Open playoff against Tiger Woods, Rocco Mediate locked down a place in sports history.
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Daniel Craig, November/December 2008

This is how life—life after the U.S. Open playoff last June with Tiger Woods—sometimes seems to Rocco Mediate: He grabs a "White Lightning" at the Starbucks next to a movie theater, gets a popcorn at the counter and settles in to watch someone who is a dead ringer for himself take on the world's greatest golfer. It's the summer's biggest hit, and this guy who looks just like him has a starring role in a David-versus-Goliath thriller.

"Yeah, I couldn't have written the script any better," says Mediate, three months removed from that playoff at San Diego's Torrey Pines, but still riding a lifetime high. "Sometimes it's difficult to believe it was me doing that, kind of an out-of-body experience. But I'll tell you what, that insanity was just awesome, awesome. I want to do it again."

Wherever he goes now, someone knows him. Airports, restaurants, Starbucks, sidewalks—somebody knows he's the guy who stood up to Tiger Woods, who pushed him to the limit, who said he wasn't afraid of him and proved it. He's in high demand for corporate outings, motivational speeches and endorsements. He's been given slots in the Skins Game, the Merrill Lynch Shootout and the Wendy's 3-Tour Challenge. He was invited to the White House during the AT&T National tournament in July. His galleries have grown exponentially, and in one instance fans knocked down barricades to get to him. "When I talk to people I make sure they know I was the runner-up," says Mediate. "Some of them think I won."

"Joe Roast Beef," as his longtime swing coach and friend, Rick Smith, likes to call him, has rocketed to stardom not by winning, but by being someone whom Joe Public can identify with.

"I can say that this is really an amazing time in my life," says the 45-year-old Mediate. "I've had a heckuva fun life, but this is truly amazing." He can handle all the attention, the celebrity and the adoration, even if it does seem over the top. Mediate's always been a popular player with the fans and the press, an easygoing talker (he calls himself a "yakker") who always has a few seconds, a few minutes, maybe even an hour to sign autographs and tell tales. Maybe that's not so unusual, considering he grew up in Arnold Palmer country in the western Pennsylvania town of Greensburg, near Arnie's hometown of Latrobe. No golfer was ever so popular or so giving as Palmer, and since Mediate was a teenager, Palmer has been more than an inspiration: he has been there to give him advice and support.

Shortly after the Open, Mediate returned home to Greensburg and went to dinner at his favorite spot, DeNunzio's, an Italian restaurant in the small town of Jeannette. He got a cheer when he walked in, posed for pictures with a 92-year-old woman celebrating her birthday and went to the private dining area where owner Ron DeNunzio always seats him. "I'm actually having a room in the restaurant changed to the Rocco Room," says DeNunzio. "He's given me his golf bag and some other memorabilia."

At various stages of his career, few people would have bet that Mediate would find celebrity. A bad back has interrupted his career on more than one occasion, and at its most debilitating, the injury seemed as if it might even end it entirely. After winning twice on the PGA Tour in the early '90s, including a playoff win over Curtis Strange at Doral, Mediate underwent back surgery, in 1994. It took him five years to be competitive again, and wouldn't you know that the defining moment of his comeback would be going up against Woods in the 1999 Phoenix Open, the tournament where fans famously moved a boulder so that Woods could hit an unobstructed shot. The two had played the final two rounds head-to-head, and after Mediate sank his putt on the 18th green for the victory, Woods shook his hand and said: "Nice to see you back, Rock."

"That really meant something to me," says Mediate. "That he knew anything about me [and] had paid attention to my situation."

His back problems didn't go away. He got by with cortisone shots, chiropractic work and guts. His last tournament win was at Greensboro in 2002. At the 2006 Masters, he experienced the incredible high of sharing the final-round lead after eight holes, and the incredible disappointment of falling to 36th after hurting his back on a perfect swing on the ninth hole. He would hit three balls in the water on the par-3 12th to make a 10. "That was incredibly hurtful," says Mediate. "I mean, I've got one arm in the green jacket and now I'm just struggling to finish."

In February 2007, he was at a friend's house in Los Angeles when in walked Cindi Hilfman, a physical therapist who runs a golf-performance business. They talked. They clicked. Together, they found a solution.

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