Posted by: Mike Cornelius | June 17, 2010

From Obscurity To Fame And Back Again

At 7 a.m. Pacific Time this morning South African Dean Pappas struck the first drive on the first hole and the most important golf tournament to be played on American soil this year got underway. It is of course the U.S. Open, being contested this year at Pebble Beach.

As its name indicates, our national championship of golf is a rare exercise in democracy in a normally closed and hierarchical sport. Any professional and any amateur with a USGA handicap index of 1.4 or better can enter to play in the Open. While that standard obviously eliminates all of us who hack our way around local clubs on the weekend, this year’s Open had 9,052 entries by the April 28th deadline, the second most in history. Eighty of those entrants were guaranteed a starting time today by virtue of their place on a money list or a high finish in last year’s Open or by meeting one or more of various other full exemption categories. For most of the rest their entry gave them only a chance to play 18 holes of local qualifying at 111 sites in early May. From each of those sites a number of top finishers went on to join a couple of hundred partially exempt players for 36 holes of sectional qualifying at 15 different sites just over one week ago. And from those various sectionals, 75 golfers emerged to join their fully exempt colleagues in the final field for this year’s Open.

While qualifying concluded last week, the identity of the very last man to make it into the 2010 U.S. Open wasn’t known until the beginning of this week. That’s because one of the USGA’s categories for full exemption is for any golfer winning multiple PGA Tour events from the week after last year’s Open until the week before this year’s. So one spot had to be left available in the unlikely event that last weekend’s St. Jude Classic became the second Tour victory in the past year for someone not already in the Open field. When already exempt Lee Westwood won the St. Jude, the USGA turned to the first alternate from the largest of the 15 sectional qualifiers. Which is how Rocco Mediate got the 156th and final spot in to this year’s Open.

Mediate is the classic journeyman golfer. At age 47, he has played professionally for the last quarter century, winning more than $15 million and recording five wins on the PGA Tour. Along the way though, he has suffered from chronic back problems. On several occasions he has had to step away from the game, most notably in 1999 when he underwent major back surgery. More than once it has seemed likely that his back troubles would put an end to his golfing odyssey. But every time that’s happened, Mediate has somehow battled back and returned to form. Still a journeyman is a journeyman, and for all his tenacity, his was a name and a face that only avid golf fans recognized until two years ago this week. That of course was when Rocco Mediate went one-on-one with Tiger Woods at the 2008 U.S. Open.

In front of thousands of roaring fans at Torrey Pines in California and millions more watching on television, the journeyman matched the superstar shot for shot over the weekend. Woods eventually had to make a twelve-foot birdie putt on the final hole to tie Mediate and force an 18-hole playoff.

The prohibitive favorite in the Monday playoff, Woods raced out to a three stroke lead through ten holes. But in a round that was a reflection of his career, Mediate battled back. Three consecutive birdies on the back nine put him into the lead, until Woods once again birdied the last to square the match. At last on the 19th hole of the playoff and the first of sudden death, the journeyman fell to the world’s #1 player.

While the 2008 U.S. Open didn’t have a fairytale ending for Rocco Mediate, it did thrust him onto center stage in a way that he had never been before. The affable Mediate took it all in stride. While Woods maintained his famously intense focus, Mediate played to the crowd, smiling and waving as he strode down the fairways; and the galleries responded in kind. In the aftermath of his turn in the spotlight, Mediate became a fan favorite for awhile, attracting good and supportive galleries at his next several events. The following spring he even published an autobiography focusing on the week-long experience at Torrey Pines (co-authored by sports columnist and author John Feinstein), Are You Kidding Me?

But fans gravitate to success, and by definition journeymen don’t succeed all that often. In 2009 the national championship venue was on the East Coast. I spent this week last year at the rain-soaked Bethpage Black course on Long Island, following the contestants vying for the year’s second major. Once again the tournament ended on Monday, not because of a playoff but because of multiple rain delays. After the third round concluded mid-morning, players were sent out off both the first and tenth tees for the final 18, with those in contention starting on number one. As the afternoon wore on, most of the thousands of fans moved to the back nine to watch the battle for the championship. At one point, wanting to move from hole #11 to hole #14, I avoided the crush of spectators by taking a detour around part of the largely deserted front nine. As I passed the green on the second hole, two players far back in the pack who had started their final round on the tenth were lining up their putts. One of the two was Rocco Mediate. He sank the putt, and the three, yes three, people in the grandstand beside the green applauded. One of them yelled out “way to go Rocco!” Mediate smiled and waved, just as he had the previous June to cheering thousands. And then he headed to the next tee, still battling.

He’s just a journeyman pro, and after posting a big number today it’s unlikely he’ll be a factor in this year’s Open, or even be around for the weekend. But I’ll always remember both 2008, and that single contrasting moment in 2009.  I for one am glad that this year at the last minute, Rocco was able to get a tee time.

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