Commentary

Mediate proud he hung with Tiger, even though he didn't win Open

Never at a loss for words, U.S. Open runner-up Rocco Mediate sat down with Jason Sobel to discuss his new legion of fans, going toe to toe with Tiger and the one do-over he'd like from Torrey Pines in this ESPN.com Hot Seat interview.

Originally Published: June 25, 2008
By Jason Sobel | ESPN.com

The 45-year-old with the balky back had just played the world's top-ranked player to a draw through 90 holes at the U.S. Open, only to lose the tournament in sudden death. His latest, greatest opportunity at a major championship was over. Now he had to talk about it.

[+] EnlargeRocco Mediate and Tiger Woods
Doug Pensinger/Getty ImagesRocco Mediate says he acts the way he does on the golf course because it's mostly a form of nervous energy.
"It was great," Rocco Mediate said in his typical unflinching, undeterred manner. "It was fun."

And it was this kind of attitude -- even in defeat -- that made Mediate a fan favorite when all was said and done at Torrey Pines in San Diego, the site of the 108th U.S. Open.

By any measure, Mediate has enjoyed a pretty successful professional career. A fully exempt member of the PGA Tour for nearly two dozen years, he owns five victories and has totaled more than $14 million in career earnings. And yet, Mediate never won more than he did during that recent loss to Tiger Woods.

In advance of this week's Buick Open -- his first tournament appearance since the U.S. Open -- Mediate sat down on the ESPN.com Hot Seat to discuss his newfound confidence, what it's like hanging with Woods and the best thing about coming in second place.

Q: How many interviews have you given since the U.S. Open?
A: 7.3 million!

Q: Too bad you don't enjoy talking, huh?
A: Yeah, it's really hard to get me to get on with it.

Q: Now that you've had a little time to sit back and analyze what took place at Torrey Pines, are you more pleased that you hung with Tiger Woods for 90 holes and finished in second place or disappointed that you had the Open within your grasp and didn't win?
A: What I'm pleased about is when I woke up Monday, I really thought that I could beat him on this golf course, because par is a meaningful score. I figured between 69 and 72 might win the golf tournament on Monday. That's what I thought. And I was pretty much right. So I knew I could do that. But I'm very, very pleased with the way I hung in there with him. I mean, the man, well, you just know he's not going to give you anything, you know what I mean? It's never easy -- it wouldn't have been easy against anybody -- but he's the best. You know you're going to be up against the wall, and I'd never been there. Well, we've both never been in a [U.S. Open] playoff, but he's won 14 [majors] now, 13 of them before that.

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It was a new thing for me, but I really wanted to show myself -- and him -- that I could play under the most competitive circumstances. You don't get a chance to play for a national championship with Tiger Woods more than maybe once in a lifetime, which I was fortunate enough to have. I wasn't going to make it a little going-away party for Tiger's 14th, you know? I didn't want that to happen. It could happen easily; if you get going bad, he's gonna kill you. I've always loved the way he played; I've always been one of his biggest fans. I like how he conducts himself, I like how he runs his life -- he's just brilliant. He can do it all and be the No. 1 player -- it's a joke how good he is. But it doesn't mean I didn't want to beat him. You know, I'm a big fan, like I said, and I respect the absolute everything out of him for everything he does. I wouldn't want his life at all; I couldn't do it as good as he does. But I wanted to beat him, and I wanted to really beat him. I had a chance, and he did something great again to stay alive. I blinked, and the playoff was over.

It's not that I was looking for respect -- I know that I've been out there for half my life and I've had a reasonably, at best, career. If you'd ever told me I'd win five times on the tour when I was 21, I'd have said, "Yeah, right. Sure." But I'm just glad that he saw my best -- well, pretty much my best -- against him. It's easy to have your best against anybody else, but it's not easy to have your best against him. And I really had my best. I really can't say, yeah, both of us could have taken shots where we'd love to have that again. The only shot I want back is the read I made on 18 [in the playoff]. It was the correct read; it was just that the ball did something funny. But, you know, I had the putt to beat him. You don't get that very often.

Q: Does losing to the world's No. 1-ranked player make it more palatable than, say, losing to the 100th-ranked player?
A: If it was anybody else but Tiger, I would be devastated right now. But I'm not devastated. I'm disappointed I didn't win. I had a chance. I had a putt at it. Blah, blah, blah. Whatever. But I'm [not] destroyed whatsoever. I mean, I haven't lost confidence in my game. I went up against the man and I gave him a serious freakin' battle -- and I lost. Well, I was supposed to get beat by 5 or 6. I'm sure if you saw a line that evening wherever you can bet, it wasn't even up. I can assure you of that.

Q: And that still holds true even if that No. 1-ranked player is on one leg?
A: You know, I keep saying, "I had trouble beating him on one leg! I mean, oh my God! He beat me on one leg!"

Q: Could you tell how much he was hurting during the playoff?
A: Actually, I couldn't. One thing about Tiger, unless it's absolutely excruciating like it was on Saturday and I watched some of the coverage on Sunday, he's not going to show you. He's not going to show anybody. It's just the way he is. He's just the consummate professional. He doesn't want any excuses. If I would have beaten him, he would have said, "He beat me straight up, and that's how it is."

Obviously, I knew his knee was bad. I knew it was worse than he was letting on. Not because he told me, but you could just tell. He knelt down a couple of times, you know, it wasn't good. But he didn't really show a lot. He just went though his deal; he hit a lot of good shots. I really didn't notice it much and I watched him swing every time. But I knew he was hurt. I knew he wasn't 100 percent.

Q: Have you watched video or highlights of that round yet?
A: I've watched some of it, yes. It was fairly exciting [laughs].

Q: Yeah, just a little bit.
A: I don't know. I don't know how to explain it. It's just different. Not that I've played with Tiger a lot of times in my career, I've been fortunate enough to be playing good enough to be with him. And it's just different when you play with him. I don't know why. It doesn't make any sense at all, but it just seems to mean more. Well, obviously, especially in an Open playoff, but it just means more. I knew it was for the national championship, but I don't want to show him that I can't hang. I don't want to show him that. I'm not supposed to hang.

You know, everybody in the world, and rightfully so, thought I was going to get killed -- the 100,000th-ranked player in the world against the No. 1 guy. Yeah, I should get my [butt] handed to me. But I really felt when I woke up that morning that I could beat him. I really did. You might think I'm crazy, but I really thought that. And I never left that. Even when I was 3 down, I said, "Just hang in there. Hang in there. You never know." And all of a sudden, I was right there.

Q: Is there one shot or one putt that you look at and say, "Man, if I had only hit that one better"? Is it the putt on 18?
A: Yeah, the putt on 18 on Monday. On Sunday, the third shot [on 18], I had some serious adrenaline going and I didn't quite handle it good enough. I made a good swing. It was a good line and it was just right of the flag, but I just carried it 5 yards more than I wanted to and it didn't catch the ridge. I was trying to catch the ridge right of the pin there so it spins back to the left and I've got an uphill putt. But it carried just a little too far and just couldn't spin that much on those greens. It's not going to suck off the top of that ridge. I'd never been there before, trying to post a number at a U.S. Open against him -- or against anybody, for that matter -- but I just let it go and hit it too hard.

But the putt, I even talked to [Paul Azinger] about it and he said, "That putt broke left." And I said, "I didn't read it to break left. I tried to play it left-center, inside left or straight." The hole is leaning to the right, everything breaks to the right and it went left. It's poa [annua grass], whatever you want to call it, but I'd like that one over. That's the only one, but I'd like that over.

Q: Prior to a T-6 at Memorial two weeks before the Open, you hadn't finished better than 36th in 16 starts this season. Did something happen with your game at Muirfield Village that gave you reason to believe you'd play well at Torrey?
A: Well, before all those tournaments, I'd been hitting the ball nice, but not putting it good. My attitude was like, "I'm the worst putter in the world." I just didn't make any putts, and it was getting to me. At Muirfield, it just changed. I was hitting it just the same. I was hitting it really good at Muirfield, but I started to putt good. And all of a sudden, it came around. I shot a really good score the last day. The golf course was a U.S. Open setup, which I love, par is a good score, and here we are. What did I finish? Sixth, you said? Then I qualified for the Open and I had a feeling that I could contend. Understand that I didn't think I was going to win the golf tournament, but all I wanted to do was be there on Sunday and I'll be darned if I wasn't. I was right there.

Q: Tell me about the crowds on Monday. They sure seemed more pro-Rocco than pro-Tiger.
A: Oh, I don't know if that's true. You know, everybody loves Tiger. All I think they wanted was -- and no disrespect to him -- they wanted someone to challenge him or beat him. One of the two, because no one does in a major. He's never lost one [when leading] going into the final round. So I think that's why they were excited. They started to get excited for me on Saturday and then Sunday and then Monday, but I think it was pretty even.

I don't think it was pro-me. I just think it was like, here's a normal dude who's ranked three-millionth in the world, challenging this guy and not backing down. I think they loved that. I was so pleased at how I did. I was pleasantly surprised, because I've never been there. I just trusted that I know what to do and I trusted my striking ability and I trusted everything else. And it pretty much worked. It may be the best thing that happened to me. Obviously, I wanted to win, but it may really help the rest of my career. I don't feel 45. I wasn't tired after I got done. I was mentally tired, but physically I was fine. I had no back problems all week. I did all the interviews and worked my butt off and I felt great. So it was a big thing for me.

A lot of people have said, "Oh, you didn't win." And I said that, too. This attention is truly remarkable, because I didn't win the golf tournament. I got beat. But I think it's definitely the coolest thing that's ever happened to me in golf. Being able to play against him pretty much on Sunday and Monday, heads up on Monday, and not do what everybody thought I was going to do. I saw some of the articles written, and rightfully so; I have nothing against what was written. They had a right to write that. I mean, they basically said, "This is just a walk in the park for Tiger. He's going to walk through this and win by whatever. Rocco doesn't know what he's getting himself into." But I did know what I was getting into.

[+] EnlargeRocco Mediate
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesNo matter how he played at the U.S. Open, Rocco Mediate was always smiling and talking up a storm at Torrey Pines.
This is what I've always wanted. And I want it again now. I'm completely hungry to play him again. He very well may beat me, but I want to try again. I mean, why wouldn't you? Why not go up against the best and see what you've got? If I play Tiger 10 times, he's probably going to beat me nine. But that one time -- I've said this a million times -- could be the whole deal. You never know.

Q: Are you prepared for the reaction you'll receive during this week's Buick Open? I mean, there are TV promos billing this as "Rocco's Return."
A: [laughs] It's kind of unbelievable. I saw the commercial and went, "Oh my God! What's going on?" But you know what? It's what we do, and if you do something like what happened last week -- and I still don't understand it, I really don't. I'm a pretty smart guy, I think; I just don't understand it. I kind of do, but I'm an everyday kind of person, and I think people relate to that. I've never won any of the big events. I've only won five times or whatever on tour. You know, whatever you want to call me, that's fine. But I think that's why they appreciate it. And I'm prepared for it.

It's going to be a neat experience, and I want to play good [this] week. I don't want to just go and say, "Well, it was so tough the week after the Open. I had to do all these interviews." That's just part of the deal. And I'm ready to play. I've got no excuses. But I'm looking forward to seeing what happens, because I don't know what's going to happen.

Q: I mean this in all sincerity and I've spoken with Fred Funk about it in the past, but do you think your name has helped earn fans? You've got to admit, Rocco is a pretty fun name for folks to cheer for in the gallery.
A: Absolutely. I always joke about that. I say, "If I had any other name, you think people would be saying that?" I don't know. It's obviously quite odd. It's the only name like that, that I know of, that plays a professional sport. And I've played reasonably well at times, so people know who I am. I've been out there a long, long, long, long time -- 23 years. So people know who I am, but I think the name has definitely made a big difference. No question about it.

Q: What does the runner-up finish do for your career going forward?
A: Well, it gives me tons of confidence. To perform on that stage -- I'm not even going to say at my age, but, well, OK, at my age -- against the best player that ever lived, I think, and I think a lot of people think that makes me happy, because, like I said, I didn't want to go out there and get my [butt] run down. You know, he can run you down. If I get off to a horrible start -- which I kind of did, I bogeyed the first -- it's going to be an embarrassment. I didn't want that to happen.

We all want to win by 1,000 shots. We want to kill everybody we play, right? But I didn't want that to happen and I think, yeah, of course one of us would have enjoyed a 5-shot victory. He would have loved to have beat me by 10; I'd love to beat him by that, too. Yeah, it would have been great. But I think that the way the match went along and the competitiveness of it, I can guarantee you -- I don't know if anyone has talked to him about it -- but I can guarantee you he enjoyed & it, because I did.

You know, it was fun going up against him and treating him just like a normal person. He is an awe-inspiring athlete. He is an awe-inspiring performer. I have always been one of his biggest fans. But that still doesn't mean I don't want to beat him. I could talk to him on the golf course, be nice, say nice things. But does that mean I'm just going to fold? I wanted to show people that that could be done. I didn't win, but I almost did. I didn't get murdered. I'm not saying my way is the only way; by far, I'm not saying that. Some guys have got to be quiet, they've got to get into it, they never change their expression -- and that's great. [Ben] Hogan was that way and he was one of the best who ever played. What are you going to say -- he was wrong? So my point is, it can be done a million different ways.

Tiger is kind of in between. He talks. He doesn't talk. He smiles. He doesn't smile. You know, we're all the same. We all get it done differently, but in the end, it's the same result. I just happen to talk -- talk to fans, my hands are always moving, it's nervous energy. I pace between my shots when I'm waiting, especially in that tournament. I don't sit still. My golf swing is, you know, I'm moving on the golf swing, I'm not ever staying still. It's not what you would call a textbook golf swing, but it certainly does work. I found that out on Monday, that it does work. It's worked before, but under that type of pressure it worked.

I can't really complain about the way I struck my ball all weekend. I really can't. We all could have shots back, but under the gun, coming in, especially from 11 on -- with the exception of the tee shot on 18 -- I really didn't miss a ball off the center of the face, from where I was looking. And that's all I can ask for in myself.

Q: How about more tangible things? A place in next year's Masters field, Ryder Cup points, FedEx Cup points -- what means the most to you out of all those?
A: Ryder Cup. Actually, Ryder Cup and back in the U.S. Open and back in the Masters, because what happened to me at the Masters in '06 with my back going out on 15 the third day and 9 the fourth day and 12 the fourth day. I think I still have enough game to contend there and I still hit it just far enough to contend, depending on the conditions. If it's wet, I'm pretty much toast. If it's dry, I can get the ball out there. I want to go back there, and now I get to go back. That was one of my goals. It all came true.

I told people that I'd love to get Tiger one more time in my career. In a huge event, whether it's a playoff or the last round, I'd love to see what I've got against this guy. And two weeks later, I had it. I couldn't believe it. I'm on the first tee on Monday, and I'm going, "This is the coolest thing that's ever happened to me."

Q: Safe to assume TV commentating is on the back burner for now?
A: Yeah, it is. That was a lot of fun. I enjoyed the Golf Channel stuff a lot, but I'm going to see how long I can keep going. I mean, nothing's changed. I'm not going to change anything. In my opinion, why would I want to get into that when I can continue doing what I'm doing? I'll keep working like I work, but I'm not trying to change something. I was on the biggest stage I've ever been on, and I didn't fall down.

Q: I've spoken with other players who have come close in major championships and been congratulated afterwards. Their usual response is, "What are you congratulating me for? I didn't win." Do you feel the same way or can you appreciate the outcome for what it was?
A: I can appreciate it, because it's like I said, you've got a 45-year-old who really hasn't done anything, hasn't won a golf tournament in six years -- a long time. I really had trouble at the beginning of this year, made seven cuts out of the first [15] -- there was no record of this coming. I had a good week at Memorial, but still, that was just one week. Standing up to the heat and being older and all that stuff, being able to challenge this guy -- the fans wanted to see a match. You guys wanted a show? We gave you one. I happened to lose, but damn, it was a good show. And I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it.

Q: Two more questions. What's the worst thing about losing the U.S. Open in a playoff?
A: The worst thing? Hmm & I've got to say, I don't know if there's anything. Against anybody else, I'd probably have an answer for you. But I really don't have an answer. I gave him all that I had. I didn't really let anything go, especially coming in, where it mattered the most. I don't know if there is a worst thing in this one. I guess the worst thing would be having the opportunity to beat him and not beating him. I guess that would be the worst thing, but I really don't know how to answer that question. So many good things happened, and I feel so good about what I accomplished, even though I didn't win. It doesn't make much sense, does it?

Q: No, but it leads me to the next question. What's the best thing?
A: The best thing is being in a playoff with Tiger Woods for the national Open and not giving in to what everybody else was thinking I would give into. And that's him. He did beat me, but he had to work for it. And I thought I had him, I really thought I had him coming down the stretch. He made a 4- or 5-footer on Monday to stay in it, just like he made a 15-footer on Sunday to stay in it. Hell no. I don't know how much he's been pushed that way.

But I'm very pleased at how I performed. And one of the best things, actually, was the comments he made toward me after [the playoff]. He knew what I did and I don't know if he was impressed, but I guess he was impressed that I stood there with him. I stood toe to toe with him and I didn't blink until the 19th hole.

Q: Rocco Mediate, you are off the ESPN.com Hot Seat.
A: OK, you got it.

Jason Sobel covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at Jason.Sobel@espn3.com.

Jason Sobel | email

Golf Editor, ESPN.com
Jason Sobel, who joined ESPN in 1997, earned four Sports Emmy awards as a member of ESPN's Studio Production department. He became ESPN.com's golf editor in July 2004.