From Rocco to rock star: Mediate returns to action with 71 at Buick Open

6/26/2008 - Golf Rocco Mediate

GRAND BLANC, Mich. -- The smile is still on his face, and you wonder if it has ever left. His friends will tell you that the ear-to-ear grin has been there since the day he was born. Rocco Mediate makes a bogey, and he still waves, chats and smiles some more.

Mediate has just completed his first nine holes in a PGA Tour event since the epic showdown with Tiger Woods at the U.S. Open and makes the trek from the 18th green to the first tee across the Warwick Hills Golf & Country Club putting green to chants of "Rocco" and various well wishes and cheers.

As is his nature, Mediate tries to acknowledge them all, saying hello to folks behind the gallery ropes, even stopping to sign a few autographs while playing partners Bob Tway and Brenden Pappas wait at the tee. In case you didn't know, that is virtually unheard of during competition, but then Rocco is not your average tour player.

It took nearly toppling the game's No. 1 player for people to notice.

"He definitely went from Rocco to rock star in my book," said PGA Tour player Brandt Snedeker, who teamed with Mediate in a charity exhibition Monday and Tuesday in Rhode Island. "I thought I was playing with Elvis. It was unbelievable. He had a huge crowd. He's great for golf. He's definitely what we need.

"What makes it even better is he's a great guy. The way he comes off is exactly how he is. You can't help but root for him. I'm a Rocco fan. Everybody's a Rocco fan. You can't help but be one."

In his first competitive round since the U.S. Open, Mediate shot 1-under-par 71 to tie for 71st place. Not great, but not bad, considering the toll the past two weeks have taken on a 45-year-old, 22-year PGA Tour veteran.

Mediate is undoubtedly enjoying the outpouring of support and affection that has come his way since he finished tied with Woods at 1-under-par 283 after four rounds of the U.S. Open. Mediate then battled back from three strokes down to take the lead in an 18-hole playoff before succumbing on the first extra hole.

It would not be a stretch to say that some fan on every hole made some reference to Mediate about the Woods playoff. And he might have tried to recognize every one of them.

"It's been unbelievable," said Mediate, a five-time PGA Tour winner who had never finished better than fourth in a major championship. "Still, it's amazing, how many people watched. And the amazing thing is how many people said, 'My mother or my father who never watches golf couldn't take his eyes off the television.'

"Obviously it wasn't because of me, it was because of Tiger and what the match turned into. ... I heard hundreds of stories like that. 'My father or my sister hates golf and she watched the whole thing and we couldn't believe it.' It's amazing."

Although he skipped last week's Travelers Championship, Mediate came into the Buick Open -- which he won in 2000 -- in anything but well-rested condition. He appeared on "The Tonight Show" last week and did countless radio and television interviews.

An ESPN.com "Hot Seat" interview that was scheduled to take 10 minutes lasted half an hour because Mediate kept on talking.

"I obviously like to talk and it doesn't really affect me that much," Mediate said. "I've actually had a lot of fun with it because I've always been with the people and talked to people, so I just talk to more people. It's just more people and more things to do."

Marco Dawson chuckled when hearing that story. Dawson, 44, goes way back with Mediate, to their days at Florida Southern College, a Division II school in Lakeland where they played on the same golf team with two-time U.S. Open champion Lee Janzen.

"He's the same guy, sure is," Dawson said. "What you see is what you get. He hasn't changed a bit. I got all kinds of phone calls, everybody was watching that playoff. Everybody I know, people I went to school with, people I hadn't heard from in a long time."

Like many, Dawson was glued to the playoff.

"The only difference, to me, was those putts Rocco missed on 9 and 10. Tiger didn't," Dawson said. "He didn't miss any of the short putts. I guess he's so used to making those putts that, to him, there is no doubt ever. But in the case of Rocco or anybody else, there might be a little bit of doubt and it separates us. Then he birdies that 15th hole and played well on 16 and 17. Tiger just got him with his length at 18."

"If it was anybody else I lost to," Mediate said, "I'd be devastated right now. But it wasn't. This guy does things that are just not normal by any stretch of the imagination. He does them all the time, especially at the big events. ... You have to look at it that way. I got tested under the most intense situation, and it worked. I enjoy that fact and hopefully it will work again and I can do the same thing."

It should probably come as no surprise that Mediate was not exactly bounding with energy as his round came to an end Thursday.

"I'm fairly wiped out. ... Kinda," he said. "I just want to keep doing the same thing I was doing, and obviously you're not going to ever have that all the time. At least, I'm not."

As he played his final nine holes, Mediate summoned enough strength to make two birdies and get his round under par. Meanwhile, a small plane flew over the course as he was playing, toting a banner that read: "Guts. Passion. Fun. Thanks, Rocco."

Mediate thought that was a nice gesture, but he was more concerned about finishing Thursday's round.

"I'm sooooo tired right now," Mediate said after signing his card. "I'm toast. I've got to get some rest. ... I'm so tired I can't even talk. You know I'm tired when I can't talk."

But he was still smiling.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.