Are You Kidding Me?: The Story of Rocco Mediate's Extraordinary Battle with Tiger Woods at the US Openby Rocco Mediate
June 2008's US Open produced one of the most unexpected and dramatic showdowns in golf history. Day after day the invincible Tiger Woods was challenged by Rocco Mediate, a respected journeyman. On Sunday, both ended play tied at par, forcing a playoff. Defying expectations, Mediate played Woods to yet another tie, losing only after forcing a sudden-death showdown.
Through it all, Rocco Mediate emerged as one of the most likable, open, and fascinating golfers. In ARE YOU KIDDING ME?, he tells the full story of these five life-changing days. With John Feinstein, whose insider knowledge of the golf world is unparalleled, Mediate relives one of sport's greatest feats, how one man overcame every obstacle to challenge the game's finest.
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Are You Kidding Me?The Story of Rocco Mediate's Extraordinary Battle with Tiger Woods at the US Open
By Mediate, Rocco
Back Bay BooksCopyright © 2010 Mediate, Rocco
All right reserved.
ROCCO MEDIATE WAS ACTUALLY GETTING a little bit tired of the dream. He’d had it in different forms for as long as he could remember. Sometimes the dream happened when he was wide awake, practicing. Like almost any kid who ever played the game of golf, he would be locked in a duel with someone—usually his hero Tom Watson—for the United States Open title.
“It would come down to a putt,” he said. “If I was practicing five-footers, it would be a five-footer. Sometimes I’d make one from across the green. Sometimes I’d hole one from the bunker.”
More recently, the dream had occurred when he was asleep. It was always a little bit foggy—the circumstances changed but weren’t ever completely clear—but he was always about to win the U.S. Open. “I love all the majors,” he frequently told friends. “But there’s nothing like the Open. It’s just the one for me.”
Now it seemed he was having the dream again, only it felt completely real. What was eerie was the detail and the specifics of this dream. He was pacing up and down in the scoring area inside the clubhouse at Torrey Pines Country Club, the municipal golf course outside San Diego where the 2008 U.S. Open was being played. On a television monitor in front of him, Tiger Woods—it had to be Tiger, right? If you were going to dream about beating someone to win a U.S. Open, why would you dream about anyone else?—was on the 18th green, lining up a 12-foot birdie putt. If he made it, there would be an 18-hole playoff the next day: Tiger Woods, the greatest player in history, against Rocco Mediate, the greatest player to ever grow up in Greensburg, Pennsylvania; Tiger Woods, the number one player in the world, against Rocco Mediate, the number 158 player in the world.
Rocco wondered when he would wake up. He wasn’t completely certain he was capable of even dreaming this scenario. He was aware of the fact that there was a TV camera on him, watching his every move and reaction as Woods circled the green, lining up the putt from every possible angle.
“He’s going to make it,” Rocco thought. “He has to make it, right? He’s Tiger Woods. He always makes these putts.” Then again, he knew how bumpy the 18th green was. After four dry days in San Diego, all the greens at Torrey Pines were bumpy, and he knew that Woods could hit a perfect putt and it might catch one of those bumps and bounce away from the hole.
“He’s going to do everything right, I know that,” he thought. “He’s going to get the right line and the right speed. His hands aren’t going to shake. The moment isn’t going to get to him, because he’s been in this moment like a zillion times in his life. He’s not going to choke; he’s not going to get so nervous that he hits a bad putt. In fact, he’s going to hit a perfect putt.
“But it still might not go in. He’s going to do everything he has to do to get the putt to go in, but there are some things—like a bad bounce—that are even out of his control. He could, through no fault of his own, miss.
THROUGHOUT HISTORY, THERE HAVE BEEN unlikely U.S. Open champions. Because the Open is truly an open, almost anyone who can play the game at an elite level can qualify. In 2008 a total of 8,390 players had entered the Open, most of them forced to go through two stages of qualifying to make the 156-man field that teed it up in June at Torrey Pines. Those who entered included players from the PGA Tour, members of the various major-and minor-league and mini-tours around the world, and club pros and amateurs. If you had the $100 entry fee and a handicap of 1.4 or lower, you could sign up to play.
Of course the Open is won most often by the game’s most glamorous names. Woods had won it twice, Jack Nicklaus and Byron Nelson four times. Ben Hogan, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, and Tom Watson were all Open champions. But Sam Snead had never won it. Neither had Nick Faldo, Steve Ballesteros, Phil Mickelson, or Vijay Singh.
But surprises happen. Jack Fleck, a club pro, beat Hogan in a playoff at the Olympic Club in 1955. Andy North, who had won only one other tournament in his entire career, won the Open twice—in 1978 and again in 1985. Steve Jones came through qualifying to win in 1996, and Michael Campbell did the same thing before beating Woods by a stroke at Pinehurst in 2005.
But no Open precedent could have prepared fans for Rocco Anthony Mediate. He had also been forced to qualify, playing 36 grueling holes in Columbus, Ohio, ten days before the Open was to begin. He had birdied his second-to-last hole of the day to get into an eleven-man playoff for the final seven spots. Then he birdied the first playoff hole to make the field.
But that was only part of the story. He was forty-five and had thought his career over because of back miseries on more occasions than he cared to think about. He had undergone major back surgery once and been forced to leave the tour for extended periods several times.
As recently as July of 2007, he had gotten out of his car on a Sunday afternoon at Los Angeles Country Club, planning to play a round of golf with friends, taken one step in the direction of his trunk, and fallen flat on his face, his back completely seizing up. In a scene out of a movie, he had managed to reach into his pocket for his cell phone and, remembering that using cell phones was against the rules in the parking lot, sent a text message to his friends inside the clubhouse.
“In parking lot face down. Help.”
He was a long way from that parking lot now, two weeks after qualifying, and he wondered when he would wake up, thinking how nice it would have been to find out if Woods made the putt. It would have been fun—even for an instant—to be the U.S. Open champion, even if it was just another dream.
Only he didn’t wake up. He was still sitting there, watching the TV monitor while the TV camera watched him, as Woods finally got over the putt. How long had it been since he had finished his own round? Twenty minutes? An hour? Ten hours? At the very least it felt like an eternity.
Woods stood over the putt for so long that Rocco began to wonder if he was hoping someone would give it to him, like in match play. “That one’s good, Tiger; pick it up.”
Finally, the putter came back and moved forward in a silky-smooth motion. The ball wobbled toward the hole, bouncing along just as Rocco had known it would. For one millisecond, it looked as if it was going to be just wide to the right side of the hole. But it kept swerving, just a tiny bit, and at the last possible instant, it caught the right corner of the hole, spun around the side of the rim—and dropped in.
Rocco saw Woods go into one of his victory dances—both fists shaking, back arched, screaming to the sky joyously. His caddie, Steve Williams, was screaming too and hugging his boss as if he had just won the Open.
This wasn’t Tiger’s dream, though; it was Rocco’s. The putt, amazing as it had been, hadn’t won the Open. It had tied him with Rocco Mediate, son of Tony and Donna, the kid who described his handicap as a high school senior as being “about a thousand.”
And so Rocco Anthony Mediate sat there watching Woods and Williams exult, thinking on the one hand that he had been one inch from winning the U.S. Open. On the other hand, he was now going to go head-to-head with the greatest player in history for 18 holes in a playoff for the U.S. Open title the next day.
“No disrespect to Jack Nicklaus,” Rocco said. “He was great, but this guy [Woods] is from another planet. He makes shots under pressure that no one else has ever made. If he hits fair-ways, he wins by 15. If he doesn’t hit fairways and puts the ball in impossible places, he still wins. He’s the absolute best ever, without any doubt at all.
“But I wasn’t afraid to play him head-to-head. I wanted to show him what I could do. I wanted to show me what I could do. I wanted to show the world what I could do. When the putt went in, I wasn’t the U.S. Open champion. But I had a chance to win it in a way no one would ever have dreamed possible.
“Except me. I dreamed it.”
THE VERY FACT THAT ROCCO relished the idea of going head-to-head in an 18-hole playoff against Tiger Woods made him markedly different from most of his colleagues on the PGA Tour. Most dreaded the idea of even being paired with Woods for an ordinary round of golf on a Thursday or Friday at a weekly tour stop. His presence was intimidating, in part because he was without question the greatest player in the world, but also because of the way he carried himself. Every pore of his body oozed confidence, the message always the same from the very first tee: I’m better than you. I know it and you know it and so does everyone watching us.
Only on rare occasions did Woods fail to live up to that message. He had stormed onto the tour in 1996, winning two times that fall at the age of twenty, and then had won his first major as a professional, the 1997 Masters, by 12 shots. “He’s a boy among men and he’s showing the men how to play,” eight-time major champion Tom Watson said that week.
Woods hadn’t let up much since that Masters. He had eye surgery and knee surgery, and always seemed to come back better than before. He piled up victories at a stunning rate, especially for the modern era. At a time when any player winning twice in the same year was thought to have had a superb year, Woods averaged more than five wins a year during his first eleven seasons on tour. By 2008, he had already won thirteen majors as a pro, putting him second all-time and well on his way to Jack Nicklaus’s record of eighteen. During one extraordinary stretch in 2000 and 2001, he won four majors in a row. Considering the fact that any player who wins three majors in a career is considered a lock Hall of Famer, the four majors in ten months—known in golf circles as the “Tiger Slam,” since he won all four of the game’s Grand Slam events in succession but not in a calendar year—was arguably the greatest feat in golf history.
“Playing with Tiger is just hard,” said Paul Goydos, a veteran pro who, as with most players, liked Woods when he didn’t have to compete against him. “Most of it isn’t his fault. The galleries are always huge and they’re always moving after he hits or putts out. They’re noisy. Getting from one green to the next tee can be tough because security is so focused on him.
“He’s not unfriendly out there, but when it’s important to him and he’s grinding—which is almost always—he gets this look in his eyes that tells you he doesn’t want to hear any jokes or kid around. You can almost see the intensity radiating off his body, especially if it’s Sunday and he’s in the hunt.”
Which, as Goydos points out, is almost always. In 2007, Woods had had a fairly typical year. He played in sixteen tournaments and won seven times—including the PGA Championship. He finished second three times, including in the Masters and the U.S. Open—results that angered him. In all, he had finished in the top ten twelve times and the top twenty-five fifteen times. That gave him sixty-one victories in his career and 144 top tens in 230 career starts. Some perspective: Phil Mickelson, the number two player in the world, who is guaranteed to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer, went into 2008 with thirty-two victories (a remarkable number by mortal standards) and 130 top tens. He had played in 363 tournaments to accumulate those numbers—133 more than Woods.
It wasn’t just the numbers that made Woods scary. Anytime he showed up on a leader board, other players began thinking about what second-place money was worth. When Woods was injured and off the tour, Lee Janzen, a two-time U.S. Open champion, joked that “our purses just went up 18 percent.” The winner’s share on tour is 18 percent of the total purse.
In fact, Woods didn’t even have to be on the leader board to make people nervous. In 2003, when he was going through his second swing change and struggling, Woods had to get up and down from a bunker to make par on his last hole in the second round just to make the 36-hole cut at the Masters. Watching on TV, veteran tour caddy Mark Chaney watched Woods make his par putt. He walked over to Brennan Little, Mike Weir’s caddy.
“Well, Butchie,” he said, calling Little by his nickname, “I thought there for a second you guys had a chance to win. Tough luck.”
Weir was leading the tournament at that moment—and leading Woods by 11 shots. As it turned out, he did win, but not before Woods closed to within a shot of him early on Sunday. Even with his game at its low ebb, Woods still frightened the competition.
It wasn’t a coincidence that on all five occasions when Woods had finished second in a major championship, the winner had not been paired with him on Sunday. And even when it appeared he had no chance to win, he still managed to put a scare into people.
In 2002, he trailed Rich Beem by five strokes with four holes to play in the PGA Championship. Then he birdied the last four holes. Beem, playing two groups behind him, managed to keep his composure and win by one. In 2007 at the Masters, Woods needed to hole out from the fairway on the 18th to tie Zach Johnson, who had already completed his final round. With the ball in the air, everyone—including Johnson—held their breath, wondering if Woods could pull off the miracle.
Tiger didn’t hole the shot that time, but Johnson said later that “anyone else, you know the odds in a situation like that are very much in your favor. With Tiger, I figured the chances were about fifty-fifty.”
No one wanted to be paired with Woods late in a major championship. He had clearly established his ability to intimidate en route to that first dominating Masters victory in 1997, when he had a two-shot lead on European Tour veteran Colin Montgomerie after 36 holes. Montgomerie, one of the best head-to-head players in Ryder Cup history, spoke confidently on Friday night about his experience in big situations and how he thought that would help him playing with the rookie the next day.
Woods shot 65. Montgomerie shot 74.
So much for experience.
The only two players who had withstood the pressure of going mano a mano with Woods in the final round of a major were relative unknowns. Bob May, who had never won on the PGA Tour, had matched 66’s with Woods during the final round of the PGA in 2000 before losing to him in a three-hole playoff. And Chris DiMarco had actually come from behind when Woods shockingly bogeyed the last two holes at the 2005 Masters to tie. Woods then birdied the first hole of a sudden-death playoff to win.
Both players had taken a nothing-to-lose approach to playing against Woods. Both knew no one gave them any chance to win. In DiMarco’s case, he was facing a Woods who wasn’t quite himself. He had gone ten straight majors without a victory during his second swing adjustment and didn’t appear as boldly confident as the Woods who had won eight major titles in twenty-two starts between 1997 and the midway point of 2002.
That Masters victory marked the return of the dominant Woods. Beginning with that event, his record in the majors was astonishing: He won five times in thirteen starts. He finished second four times, third once, and fourth once. He had been out of the top ten only twice: a 12th-place finish at the British Open in 2007 and a missed cut at the U.S. Open in 2006, his first tournament back after the death of his father. It was the only time he had missed a cut in forty-five majors as a pro. Again, for perspective, Mickelson, who has a superb record in the majors, had missed seven cuts in fifty-nine majors, including two in 2007. As if to prove what a fluke that was, Woods had bounced back to win both the British Open and the PGA that year.
His presence on the leader board at the 2008 Open was more proof of his greatness. He had undergone knee surgery for a second time in April, soon after finishing second to Trevor Immelman at the Masters. He had not played a single round of competitive golf between the Masters and the Open, and there were rumors almost until the moment that he teed off on Thursday at Torrey Pines that he might withdraw. Even his practice rounds had been extremely limited, and people wondered if he would be able to play anywhere close to his normal level.
For 27 holes the answer appeared to be no. Paired with Mickelson and Adam Scott, the number-two-and number-three-ranked players in the world, Woods looked extremely human. He was struggling to keep his driver under control, putts weren’t dropping, he frequently grimaced after making contact with the ball, and he was clearly still hobbling at times.
He was well behind the leaders midway through his round on Friday, a lot closer to the cut line than the top of the leader board. That he might withdraw to prevent further damage to the knee even if he made the cut seemed distinctly possible.
But then, on his last nine holes on Friday afternoon, Tiger became Tiger again. Making the turn, he was at three over par for the tournament, trailing Stuart Appleby, who would be the leader at the midway point by six strokes. At that moment Tiger was four strokes inside the cut line.
But five birdies on Torrey Pines’ front nine—he had played the back nine first—completely turned the tournament around for Woods and changed it for everyone else in the field as well. Woods went from struggling to lurking, just a shot from the lead at the end of the day. One of the people he was tied with on Friday night was Rocco, who had followed up a two-under-par 69 with an even-par 71 to tie for second with Woods and Robert Karlsson.
By Saturday night, there was only one leader: Woods. He finished his day by chipping in for birdie from an awkward lie just outside a bunker on 17 and then holing an eagle putt on the 18th green. That set up a familiar scenario: Woods leading a major after three rounds is as close to a lock as anything in sports. Thirteen times he had led majors going into Sunday; thirteen times he had walked away the winner.
Lee Westwood was one shot behind Woods with 18 holes to play, and Rocco was still hanging around. By late Sunday afternoon, with the golf course bathed in sun and a gentle breeze coming in off the Pacific Ocean, the three men were locked in a battle for the Open title. Only one could win, and most assumed it would be Woods.
“Can someone named Rocco really win the U.S. Open?” NBC’s Johnny Miller asked. “He looks more like he should be cleaning Tiger’s pool than leading the Open.”
But there was Rocco in the lead, late on Sunday afternoon. If the world was surprised, he wasn’t. Nor were his boyhood friends watching back home in Greensburg, Pennsylvania, a small town about thirty miles outside Pittsburgh.
“Rocco has always had what I would call an irrational sense of self-confidence,” said Dave Lucas, a buddy for almost forty years. “A lot of people dream about playing on the PGA Tour; Rocco always knew he’d play on the tour, when there was no logical reason to believe it because he just wasn’t good enough. There was no logical reason for him to beat Tiger, which is why I knew he would think he could beat him. It makes no sense at all—unless you’re Rocco.”
All of which made perfect sense to Rocco. One-on-one with the greatest player in history over 18 holes for the U.S. Open title? “Bring it on,” he said Sunday night. “I can’t wait.”
Excerpted from Are You Kidding Me? by Mediate, Rocco Copyright © 2010 by Mediate, Rocco. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Meet the Author
John Feinstein is the bestselling author of Living on the Black, Tales from Q School, Last Dance, Next Man Up, Let Me Tell You a Story (with Red Auerbach), Caddy for Life, Open, The Punch, The Last Amateurs, The Majors, A Good Walk Spoiled, A Civil War, A Season on the Brink, Play Ball, Hard Courts, and three sports mystery novels for young readers. He writes for the Washington Post,Washingtonpost.com, and Golf Digest and is a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.
Rocco Mediate has been playing professional golf since 1985. He lives in Los Angeles.
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We all know so much about Tiger, so about 2/3's of the book are about Rocco and his history and rise. The last 1/3 was about the match and it was both interesting and eye-opening. The relationship between Rocco and Tiger, on and off the course is really worth knowing.
I'd imagine any golf fan who watched this particular U.S. Open was thrilled throughout, particularly Sunday and Monday. Rocco Mediate, clear underdog, someone we could all root for, a real life "Rocky,"....against the Woods machine. Feinstein provides a solid buildup throughout the first half of the book regarding Mediate's background, and even does well describing the actual golf action in the second half. It just felt like a VERY LONG magazine article. Good, solid, informative. Just not at all a great book and not one I'd recommend anyone rush out to read.
Very decent book if you like golf and know the players. Easy weekend read. I enjoy all of the books I have read authored by John Feinstein so I was not surprised. Have fun with this one.
The life of a PGA Tour Professional can be a difficult road when they are struggling to find their game. Living out of a suit case, traveling from motel to hotel around the country is just the life style of a regular tour pro; some might say they are alone together. Rocco Mediate is a normal tour pro, just a typical career with a couple of wins and plagued with an annoying back injury. No one ever dreamed of a man like this to challenge the best golfer in the world no less at the biggest tournament of the year. Not even Rocco thought this would be possible but when the opportunity appeared he did not back down to the most dominant player ever to play the game of golf. Are You Kidding Me? is not only the title of the book but is also a quote stated by Tiger and Rocco during their epic duel at the 2008 U.S. Open. Everyone knows the story of how an average Joe, Rocco almost beat Tiger Woods, the Goliath of golf. But most people do not appreciate how Rocco Mediate got to that spot, maybe only his fellow tour pros know how hard he had to work to become the man he is today. Starting golf at an older age compared to his peers, Rocco became obsessed with the game and worked consistently to improve. Rocco Mediate gave an important message to everyone when he stood toe to toe with Tiger, and that was never to back down to anything. He did not let Tiger psyche him out just by wearing a red shirt on Sunday; he smiled back while wearing his own red shirt. I liked everything about this book as a golfer myself, it gave details I never knew about the PGA Tour and what it is like to be an average guy out there. I knew the book was biography but the parts about Rocco's family life I did not enjoy as it was boring. Never the less this book should be read by all golf fans and anyone who wants to be apart of this extraordinary game.
Excellent reading on my trip to and from Rome, Italy! Being from the Pittsburgh area, Rocco maintains the never give up attitude common to Pittsburgh, and John Feinstein brought it out once again very well. Maybe Johnnie Miller needs to read this book before he shoots off his mouth again about "the pool attendant" taking on Tiger!!!!
Great insight to the game and the US Open. I enjoyed the stories. I also recommend Mentalrules for golf