We’ll start with the stories. Rocco Mediate has hundreds of them, but two will do.
It’s early August, and Mediate is leaning against the wall at Los Angeles International Airport, waiting for his flight to Seattle.
He’s wearing shorts and flip-flops, and he’s exhausted, so he closes his eyes for a couple of minutes.
When he wakes up, eight people are standing there, staring at him.
“Scares the crap out of me,” Mediate says.
It’s Tuesday afternoon, about 4, and Mediate pulls into the parking lot of the AJ’s Fine Foods in Scottsdale. When he gets out of his car, he sees a woman exiting her Mercedes-Benz CLS 63 AMG four-door coupe.
“So you like the 63?” Mediate says.
“I love it,” the woman says.
“Yes, I am,” Mediate says.
“I just want to tell you we were in Neiman Marcus, and they had a TV on and everybody was watching you,” she says. “The whole place shut down.”
More than four months have passed since Tiger Woods beat Mediate in a sudden-death playoff to win the U.S. Open, and Mediate swears not a day has gone by without someone wanting to talk to him about those thrilling two days at Torrey Pines.
“It’s been amazing,” said Mediate, in the Valley for the Frys.com Open, which begins today at Grayhawk Golf Club. “I think I’d have to go into hiding not to be recognized.”
It’s funny. Mediate has five wins on the PGA Tour — including the 1999 Phoenix Open — and he’s earned more than $14 million in his career, but unless he has another magical weekend in his bag, he’ll forever be remembered for losing the Open.
But you know what? He’s OK with that.
“Are you kidding?” he said. “It was the best time you could ever have playing golf. Yes, I didn’t win, and I’d love to have the trophy, but the world saw how you’re supposed to play golf and how much you’re supposed to enjoy it. How could I mind being remembered for that?”
Had Mediate kept his head down that weekend and acted like world peace was riding on every putt, he’d be just another footnote in Woods’ career, another golfer who couldn’t knock the king off the hill.
But Mediate never let the Open pressure quiet his outgoing personality. People were amazed that a 45-year-old guy with a bad back could not only challenge the great Tiger Woods but smile and enjoy himself and act like he was playing with his buddies at the local muni.
“Here I am, in my favorite tournament and I’m playing good and I’m getting the chance to go up against the best player who ever played, head-to-head,” Mediate said. “How in the hell can you not want to do that?
“I’m not scared. The only thing that’s going to happen is he’s going to beat me or I’m going to beat him. It doesn’t make any sense to be scared, so why not enjoy it?”
Enjoy it, Mediate did. And as he went toe-to-toe with Woods, cracking so many jokes that he actually got Woods to laugh a couple of times on Monday, golf fans started pulling for the underdog. It might have been the only time in Woods’ career when a majority of people wanted him to lose — even though he was playing on a broken leg and in obvious pain with every swing.
Such was Mediate’s pull.
“I’m a huge fan of Tiger. Always will be,” Mediate said. “He’s always the favorite because people love winners. But all of a sudden they’re going, 'It might be cool if this guy won the tournament. Tiger is going to win about 57 more, but this guy isn’t.’ So they were all over me. It was cool.”
Mediate didn’t close the deal, of course, but he refused to let the loss spoil the experience.
“That whole day (Monday) was truly special because it was as intense as you can get from the time I got up to the time I left the golf course,” said Mediate, who has yet to talk to Woods about their duel. “I’ve never heard louder roars in my life. …
“I remember the smells, the sounds, the feeling, the wind, the noises. You name it, I remember it all. It was just the coolest day of golf I ever had.”
The ensuing days and weeks were a whirlwind. Mediate was a guest on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno.” He made dozens of appearances, answered “thousands” of e-mails, letters and text messages and didn’t get a full night’s sleep for months.
But he took a six-week break in early September to recharge his batteries, and he finally feels refreshed.
“I needed it,” he said. “I was all over the damn place.”
It shouldn’t be long before Mediate can go to a grocery store parking lot and not be recognized. Or sleep in an airport without having strangers stare at him. Even the greatest of sporting events fade into the memory.
But Mediate won’t mind if that day never comes. He appreciates how fortunate he was to be a part of history. And he knows what the alternative is.
“If you want them to stop noticing you, just shoot 80,” he said. “They’ll stop noticing you real fast.”