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.
"There was medical mismanagement of his condition," says Hilfman. "They were preoccupied with chiropractic manipulation of his sacroiliac. He had manipulation for 20 years. He had people saying it was his hip. It turns out to be a lumbar 1 disc herniation. That was above his surgery site. They had been looking below the site for the source of his pain because it would sometimes be in the buttocks. There would be times where he couldn't walk for two weeks."
The solution was not further surgery or different manipulation. "He had an epidural steroid injection," says Hilfman. "He's completely off chiro. He's virtually had no back problems since. He would play 20, 21 tournaments a year. Now he will probably play 25 and some other events. We work on dynamic core exercises to stabilize his trunk. We manage his weight. We have him on a diet, at least not eating so much. We do stretching and soft tissue work."
Mediate and Hilfman are a "we." He is separated from his wife, Linda, with whom he has three sons, Rocco, Nicco and Marco. Mediate calls Hilfman his best friend, and she travels to tournaments when she can, that is, when business or a severe medical condition doesn't get in the way. Hilfman suffers from medullary sponge kidney disease, which can be life-threatening. A phone interview with Mediate and Hilfman for this story took place with Mediate in Hilfman's hospital room in Los Angeles, where she was being treated for severe symptoms.
"He's told people that I'm inspirational to him because of how I handle the pain," says Hilfman. "He's visiting me in the hospital when he's playing a big tournament this week on the other side of the country. He's an amazing human being."
So is Hilfman.
"Cindi wears many hats," says Mediate.
"I'm his nutritionist, his sports psychologist," says Hilfman. "At the start of the year, he was missing cuts by a stroke. He gets into his head that he's a horrible putter. I tell him he can't be a horrible putter if he's playing on the PGA Tour. He's had trouble [with] overeating. He's a coffee junkie. I try to tell him about moderation, like playing PokerStars for two hours instead of 10. People say I am his life coach. Maybe so."
Even before the Open, life had been full for Mediate. His dedication to golf is unquestioned, his work ethic solid. He didn't get to the PGA Tour or win tournaments playing solely off innate ability. His father, Tony, a barber in Greensburg, recalls picking him up at Greensburg Country Club one day when his son was practicing bunker shots. Rocco had holed one and didn't want to leave until he holed another. By the end of the evening, it looked as if he'd dug the bunker himself.
When he wasn't creating calluses, Mediate indulged himself in life. He loved his music, and a love of the Canadian rock group Rush had as much to do with his friendship with fellow Tour player Lee Janzen as it did with becoming his golf teammate at Florida Southern in the early 1980s. "We didn't hit it off right away," says Janzen. "He was more advanced than me when it came to golf and understanding it. He would keep track of how many fairways he hit, how many greens, how many putts he would have in a practice round. He liked to paint on his golf gloves the Italian colors. He was exposed to Jim Ferree, who played on Tour, and he would talk about how Jim hit the ball, the golf swing. It was a foreign language to me."
What they had in common was music. "When you meet another person who likes Rush, there's a connection," says Janzen.
With his Italian heritage and parents who loved to cook for big family dinners, Mediate has always been hooked on food. Janzen tells of how Mediate would offer to buy dinner if someone would go off-campus to eat with him. They often ended up in a pizza joint where a specialty was a pie topped with jalapeño peppers. "We'd come out of there dripping sweat," says Janzen.
When Mediate goes out to dinner with friends, at DeNunzio's in Jeannette or a favorite place in Brentwood, California, or any number of other favorites around the PGA Tour, he tends to do all the ordering. "I like to order the menu," says Mediate. At DeNunzio's he has a dish that Ron DeNunzio is naming after him that features sausage, peppers and potatoes. At a house that Mediate rented in Augusta for the Masters, his father would prepare the evening meals. "The best food I ever had was when I would eat with Rocco and his family," says his friend Smith. "You talk about a spread; it's the best you've ever seen."
Mediate's tastes run to fine wines, such as the reds from Silver Oak and Chimney Rock, and whites from Kistler. He also enjoys top-quality Bordeaux from Lafite Rothschild and Latour that one of Hilfman's best friends supplies.
And it can't go without saying that Mediate likes a cigar now and then. He prefers Fuente Fuente OpusX, Padrón 1964 Anniversary and Montecristo No. 4. He gets some help from his friends on the European Tour. "Miguel Angel Jimenez takes care of me when he comes over here," says Mediate. "He's always got some great Cubans. Darren Clarke has taken care of me as well. They are just terrific guys."
He likes to play online poker, and the PokerStars people put him into the 2005 World Series of Poker, where he advanced to the second round of play. World Series winner Greg Raymer has given him lessons and has become a good friend. Mediate doesn't play poker regularly, and is careful about who he plays against when there's money on the line, both in poker and in golf. "I'm not one of those guys who thinks he's good," says Mediate. "I could beat these guys a couple of times, but over the course of a year they would destroy me. They couldn't beat me heads-up in golf. They would only play me for money if they had everything their way. So I don't play them for money. I don't play much poker anymore. I couldn't make a living at it, I'll tell you that."
Smith will tell you that whatever Mediate is doing, it's at full tilt. "He has a really huge heart and a great personality," says Smith. "Rock's an all-or-nothing guy. Sit at dinner with him, he's always moving around. His knees would hit the dinner table and make the water glasses shake. He never stops moving. If you tried to pin him down and keep him still, you would have an explosion."
All this energy, a veritable Three Mile Island's worth, has kept Mediate going through the thick and thin. Sure, there were times when his back was so bad that he thought he had taken his last swing, but he kept on living his life centered around family and friends.
Frank Zoracki has been his friend and business manager for more than 20 years. Their introduction came on a golf course, after a near miss. "We met at the Greensburg Country Club, he was playing in a group behind me," says Zoracki. "He nearly hit me, though he will tell [you] that his ball was nowhere near me. I was walking off a par-3 green when a ball landed a few yards away from me. I yelled, 'What the hell are you doing?' He yelled that he was sorry. Someone in my group said that it was Rocco Mediate and that he had just gotten his Tour card. When we got done playing I struck up a conversation with him, and that became a very close friendship."
Zoracki is passionate about explaining Mediate's passion for life. "All the things you hear about him are true," he says. "He's very open, genuine and generous. He really takes care of what's his. His boys are everything to him. He reaches out to everyone around him. If he was Superman and could do everything for everybody, he would. There was a church in Jacksonville [Florida] when he lived there that created a tournament to fund their missions. If they didn't make their financial objectives, he would make up for it out of his own pocket."
Mediate's passion for life didn't mean that golf could ever take a permanent backseat. After being taught by Smith for nearly 20 years, Mediate sought out longtime swing coach Jimmy Ballard. Ballard taught a swing that was considered to be more "spinal friendly," something that Mediate needed if he was going to continue his career. Ballard, who once coached Curtis Strange, first saw Mediate close up when he defeated Strange at Doral. "I thought to myself, 'That guy's got talent and guts,'" says Ballard. "We changed his setup, got him in a good athletic position like he was going to guard someone in basketball. He was too bent over. We need to keep his spine straight."
That was four years ago, and things went well until his back went out at the 2006 Masters. The chance meeting with Hilfman made the titanic meeting with Woods possible. Using Ballard's swing, Hilfman's support and his own unslakable thirst for competition, Mediate set out to beat the best. "I was the only one—well maybe a few of my friends—who thought I could beat him. The only one," says Mediate. "You always dream about that scenario, about playing for the national championship against the best player in the world, and I got to do it. I was very confident. It wasn't an act. It's just how I am."
It was also a U.S. Open course, where par was a good score. It wasn't going to be a Bob Hope Desert Classic birdie-fest. Mediate was down by three shots at the midpoint of the playoff round, then rallied to take a one-shot lead. A poor drive on the 18th led to a disappointing par 5, while Woods made his birdie to extend the playoff to sudden death. On the 91st hole, Mediate made a bogey and Woods was the champion. "Great fight," Woods said as the pair embraced on the green.
During the NBC television commentary, Johnny Miller had remarked, as a way of assessing Mediate's status in the golf world relative to Woods, that he looked like Woods's pool boy. The comment caused some outrage in the Italian community, and NBC got plenty of phone calls about it. Mediate got a laugh out of it.
"Johnny and I are fine," says Mediate. "Some people didn't like it. I didn't care. Johnny called me the next day and said, 'Whoops.' I said, 'It's no problem.' Everybody else blew it out of proportion. I like Johnny and his work."
His business manager even imagined making a little hay out of the remark. "The National Italian American Foundation went ballistic over it," says Zoracki. "Rocco knew he didn't mean it that way. I'd love to see us have the ability to market it. Wouldn't that be a hell of a commercial? Tiger is sitting there watching a replay of the Open; Johnny says that Rocco is the kind of guy who looks like Tiger's pool guy. Tiger has kind of a smirk. We fast-forward to Tiger sinking a putt to win. Then he goes to the window and looks out at his pool guy, who's Rocco, and says, 'Hey, are you done?' Rocco is the kind of guy who would do that."
One disappointment in an outstanding summer came when Ryder Cup captain Paul Azinger didn't select Mediate to be part of his team. Mediate had not played well at the end of last year and the start of this year, but beginning at the Memorial Tournament in June he posted a number of strong finishes, and had his sights set on making the team.
"I was very sad about it," says Mediate. "I thought I gave Paul the goods. He didn't think so. He's the captain and I respect his decision and he's still one of my best friends and nothing has changed. I've talked to him several times. He didn't have a reason [for not picking me], that's the reason he gave me. I played some pretty good golf for a long stretch, but obviously it wasn't good enough. I was pretty devastated for a couple of days. But I've moved on and I'm over it."
He isn't over basking in the limelight of his Open performance. The media spotlight has been hot and intense since then, and he's loving every minute of it. His wife and three sons have moved to Seattle, and he is able to see them a lot now that he's basing himself in Los Angeles. His health is the best it's been in maybe 20 years. His relationship with Hilfman is blossoming.
So now it's a matter of getting himself a major championship, something he knows he has the tools for. "I'll talk in the third person about who I am after the playoff: He's a more confident golfer. He believes more in his ability after going through the hardest test of all. He got into a playoff with Tiger Woods, probably the greatest golfer of all, and he stood up to the test."
In the first person, he has this to say about the future: "I played pretty good the way I played, so I will just keep doing that. It's a dangerous thing when you think you have to get a lot better and have to overhaul. You won't see me doing that. I think I have a big one in my future somewhere, one of those majors."
Jeff Williams is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.