Sports

DAVE DAVIES, host:

DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies sitting in for Terry Gross.

My guest is Rocco Mediate, a professional golfer who captured the hearts of millions of non-golf fans last June when he battled the great Tiger Woods to a thrilling finish at the U.S. Open. Mediate was appealing not just because no one gave him a chance to win, but because he's a likeable every man, a 45 year-old with a paunch and a winning smile who gave the champ the greatest battle of his career.

Rocco Mediate has written a memoir and account of the historic U.S. Open with sports journalist John Feinstein. It's called "Are You Kidding Me."

Well, Rocco Mediate, welcome to FRESH AIR.

You played sports a lot as a kid, I know.

Mr. ROCCO MEDIATE (Professional Golfer): Right. Right.

DAVIES: Why did you end up with golf?

Mr. MEDIATE: Well, I played baseball, I think, you know, back in the what - '70s? And all my buddies - we had a neighborhood with like 10 - 12 kids about the same age. So we had a great time and we all played in the same league. So they all played - we all played together, then they kind of quit playing and played golf. So I decided to give golf a shot and we're still here - 'cause I didn't have - you know, the baseball was over and I didn't want to play in high school - I wasn't good enough to play in high school. So who knew?

DAVIES: I want to talk a little bit about what it's like when you're out there, you know, playing on the tour. And of course, you have a partner, the caddy. And he carries the clubs and rakes the sand traps, but he's much more than that. What does a good caddy do?

Mr. MEDIATE: Oh yeah. Well, it depends on who you are. Some guys just like them to carry the bags, give them numbers - your yardages from where you are to the hole. Stuff like that. I like Matthew who caddies for me. All my cadies over 24 years I've been on this tour, I've had maybe five different guys, which isn't a lot, actually. I like them to be involved, and I like to talk, and I like to, you know, it's just… I'm only concentrating for about you know four or five seconds over each shot, so it's not like I have a lot to do, so I like to keep busy. They do everything. I mean they keep you calm. The good ones keep you calm and the good ones tell you to, if you're complaining and whining and oh this is not right and this can't happen to me, you know - which we all do. He kind of puts you back in your place. He should. I mean a good one isn't you know, one thing, Pete Bender(ph), who caddied for me for years… He caddied for Norman, and Watkins, and now he's caddying for Bad, Aaron Baddeley. You know, Pete never let me get away with childish things because he's seen them all. So he got in my face and it's good. One thing he said is you should never be afraid, as a caddy, to be fired.

DAVIES: Uh-huh.

Mr. MEDIATE: A lot of guys are.

DAVIES: And what kind of childish things would he call you on?

Mr. MEDIATE: Well you know what I mean, it's just like you know, that's a bad break or that ball should've went here, blah, blah, blah. You know it's just, you just, I vent everything. I don't keep anything inside me. It all comes out. And you know, it may sound negative, but negativity in my mind fuels me, I guess you could say. It's like I always try to prove myself wrong when I say something like, oh my god I can't believe I did that or I shouldn't be here or this is ridiculous, stuff like that. We all do it, whether it's inside - internal, or I say it. And you know Matthew's done a good job so far of keeping me where I need to be.

DAVIES: Now the other thing that happens, of course, in a golf tournament is that you're playing with other guys - two or three, depending on the day of the tournament.

Mr. MEDIATE: Mm-hmm. Right.

DAVIES: And you both hit, or three of you hit, and then you walk down the fairway, which means you've got a lot of time to talk if you want to, but a lot of players don't.

Mr. MEDIATE: Right.

DAVIES: Is that because they're concentrating or because they want to psych you out? What's going on there?

Mr. MEDIATE: No there's - the psyching out part doesn't really, as far as I'm concerned there's nothing that can psych me out except for me.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. MEDIATE: You know no one else can affect anything that I do nobody. So and that's how it should be. There's nothing that can stop me from doing what I want to do on the golf course, unless me - unless I do it myself. But you know I talk a lot going down. I'll talk to fans, I'll talk to Matthew, I'll talk to the players, depends on who you're playing with.

DAVIES: Yes.

Mr. MEDIATE: I'm not going to get in there and bother people just because, I don't do that. I don't change my game for anybody, but or change the way I play for anybody. But if I can tell people don't want to talk I don't bother with the guys I'm playing with as far as talking. But you know, the caddies always talk a lot and, you know, I keep busy. But some guys just don't.

DAVIES: Yes. I noticed that...

Mr. MEDIATE: Don't say anything.

DAVIES: Right. I mean people can see you walking down the fairway just chattering away. And what are you talking about? Are you talking about the weather? You're talking about where you're going to have dinner?

Mr. MEDIATE: Well who knows? All of that stuff. Whether dinner, what did you do last night, Matthew? You know what; you're just trying to figure something out. Talk about how you're feeling you know, what you felt. You know I talk about the shot sometimes or the club I hit or whatever, just the breaks and stuff like that. But there's nothing, it's really not rocket science out there. If people knew what we really talked about sometimes they'd be shocked.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DAVIES: You had, by any measure, a successful, you know, career on the pro tour, but at times you have really struggled with back problems.

Mr. MEDIATE: Oh boy. Yes. I have.

DAVIES: Describe a couple of the really tough moments there for us. I mean like in July of 2007, I mean just a year before you, the famous U.S. Open you...

Mr. MEDIATE: Yes. I all started in 94, 93 actually. The end of 93 I had a disc blown, my L1-2 disc. Oh actually, excuse me, L2-3. I kind of fractured, herniated and went crazy and I had surgery in 94 and I didn't know if I'd ever play again. Went through rehab, blah, blah, blah, I came back out, got my card, I still had my card but I had to go do something crazy to get it back. I did and, then it was good for five or five years. And then it, you know the mid-2000s like three, four, and five I was...

DAVIES: And when you say get your card, you mean the card the last...

Mr. MEDIATE: Oh yes I'm sorry yes. Yes, the player's card.

DAVIES: (unintelligible) for the tour?

Mr. MEDIATE: Yes I mean that's what we call it. It's just your privilege is back.

DAVIES: Mm-hmm.

Mr. MEDIATE: If you don't finish in the top 125 you're out. You got to go back to tour school which is a six round tournament. You play, they play every year. They take 30, 25 guys I think now, something like that. Twenty-five guys out of a couple hundred that get to play next year. So it's a great job if you can get it, but it's a tough interview because you get interviewed every year.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MEDIATE: You have to play good or you're gone. So and I love that part about my sport. But, so you know it was really bad there in the mid-2000 I guess you would say. I had a great, pretty good year and I think my best year was 02 I believe. I'm not exactly sure. Then 03 was okay, then 04, 5, and 6 I was in bad shape. My back went crazy and I couldn't play much and when I did I was terrible and the Masters in 06 is when it really went sideways and it blew out on the back nine and it was Sunday. I had the lead going into… Well I think I was one out of lead or tied for lead going to the back and I almost couldn't finish - and that was pretty bad. And then 2007 is when I met Cindy, Cindy Helfman(ph), who's a physical therapist and she fixed me.

DAVIES: Rocco Mediate's book with John Feinstein is called "Are You Kidding Me?" More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

DAVIES: My guest is pro golfer Rocco Mediate who's historic battle with Tiger Woods at last year's U.S. Open is chronicled in his book with John Feinstein called "Are You Kidding Me?"

So the tournament's four days.

Mr. MEDIATE: Right.

DAVIES: Around Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday. And after days Tiger has finally taken the lead by, I think, one stroke, right?

Mr. MEDIATE: Right.

DAVIES: And his record in major tournaments where he has led going into the last day - 13 times he started the last day leading and has won all 13 times.

Mr. MEDIATE: Right. Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: So people tend to kind of think it's over then. Now, the interesting thing that it's hard when I look back at this to remember that you and Tiger were not actually playing together on that last day. He was...

Mr. MEDIATE: No. He was behind me.

DAVIES: You were in the group in front of him is that right?

Mr. MEDIATE: Mm-hmm. Right.

DAVIES: But talk a little bit about what it's like to play around Tiger on the last day of a big tournament? Are there certain, are there special distractions?

Mr. MEDIATE: Not very - no. The only distractions I have are the ones I create. The people, I love. I love the noise. I love the encloseness(ph). I like the people on the T. I like all that stuff. I like that excitement. It's, I wish I could do it every week but I can't.

DAVIES: You mean the thousands of people who there to see Tiger and...

Mr. MEDIATE: The thousands of people and right. Well they're there to see all of us, really...

DAVIES: Yes.

Mr. MEDIATE: ... especially on the last day. And they want to see him go. They want to see you know like you said, he won 13 in a row but there's always a first time for everything and that's what I was thinking. I mean I want to knock this guy off somehow. I know I can. I'm playing good enough to do it because it's an open course. I know what's going to win and I knew if I was par or better by the end of the week that I was probably going to win, and unfortunately it was a tie. But I knew what I had to do and I knew what you know, he still has to do it too. It's not as easy. Just because he's who he is he still has to perform, which he does, he'd done better than anybody that ever played. So it's no different to me when he's in the field or not. I'd rather have that challenge and say that I beat the best when I you know, if I did. I mean I won the Phoenix Open in 99 playing with him the last two rounds in the same group with me and I won that. I'll never forget that because he was the number one ranked player in the world. He, you know - and that's just something I can tell my children and I love that fact. And I wanted that again a year ago but I just about got up. You know I didn't quite get it, but it doesn't affect me. It doesn't scare me. It doesn't make me nervous. None of that stuff. I just want to beat him somehow.

DAVIES: All right. So on the last day of this tournament where everybody knows that nobody can get ahead of Tiger if he started the day ahead, you did. I mean you played well, and with one hole to go for each of them you had a one stroke lead and it was at some point in this that the TV commentator, Johnny Miller, the former golfer, said something that like Rocco looks more like Tiger's pool boy than a U.S. Open champion.

Mr. MEDIATE: Right.

DAVIES: And it generates some controversy.

Mr. MEDIATE: Right.

DAVIES: How'd you feel about that?

Mr. MEDIATE: I didn't care. I thought it was funny. You know Johnny is a buddy of mine and Johnny shoots from the hip too, but you know he just says those things some times. I was the first call I got on, he was the first call I got on Tuesday morning was from him to apologize. He said I think I got myself in trouble. What do you think? I said I'm fine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. MEDIATE: You know?

DAVIES: You took it as a compliment?

Mr. MEDIATE: No well I didn't really take it as anything. You know I'm like it's no big deal. It's just how it is. I mean you know Tiger's pedigree. I'm not. Those things happen and you know a lot of times obviously it didn't happen. The amazing thing didn't happen. I did not win the golf tournament, but it would've been a lot more stories written like that if I did.

DAVIES: All right. So despite Tiger being three strokes ahead on this playoff.

Mr. MEDIATE: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: You play well. You come up, and again, on the last whole have a one stroke lead

Mr. MEDIATE: Right.

DAVIES: And again Tiger managers a birdie. So you're tied again and go to a one hole playoff. And finally, Tiger wins.

Mr. MEDIATE: Right.

DAVIES: What did the two of you say to each other at the end of it?

Mr. MEDIATE: Well, you know, I just went over and after I just missed that par putt to tie. And I walked over and I just he just kind of had his hand out and I just kind of hugged him. I don't want any part of a handshake. I just kind of hugged him and he said great fight. And I said you too and that was it.

DAVIES: Yes.

Mr. MEDIATE: It's nothing really much to say. It was a long day, a long week and it was just a very… Roger (unintelligible) and Mark Rolfing were taken back some much because it was so emotional. You know, they're the on course announcers for us. Roger was following, talking with Tiger and Mark was talking with me so, following me. So it was just an emotional… Everybody couldn't believe how it turned out, because in all it was over after 9, after 10 holes everyone thought. Except for me.

DAVIES: Right.

Mr. MEDIATE: Everyone thought it was over. The world said this is ridiculous I'm sure, but it became not ridiculous. I knew that if I could do what I had to do I could beat him. You know? And I walked to 16th tee box, one ahead, that's was exactly where I wanted to be. I wasn't surprised, shocked, worried. I just said if I do my job, the next three holes, it's mine.

DAVIES: Well you know Tiger is known for getting big crowds and adoring crowds.

Mr. MEDIATE: Mm-hmm.

DAVIES: But in this tournament, where you're the guy, the on they call every man.

Mr. MEDIATE: Right.

DAVIES: The guy who came in knocking one of the top 100 golfers in the world and takes him a place that no other player ever has on a last day. How did the crowd react to you? What did you feel from them?

Mr. MEDIATE: Oh it was total - they were totally me that day. They were very good with both of us. But the screams and the names, screaming the name and it was so loud. And they just thought they were going to see something that was never done before and they enjoyed that. You know they, everybody loves Tiger. Believe me, but in this instance they were crazy and it was cool. It was one of the coolest… I'll never see anything like it before no matter what I do. Thirty thousand people following two people. I mean the 18th grandstand was full at seven o'clock in the morning. We didn't get there until after two o'clock. After one o'clock. So I tell you it was amazing. It was amazing.

DAVIES: Well Rocco Mediate, good luck on the tour and thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. MEDIATE: You got it, my friend. Take care.

DAVIES: Rocco Mediate's book with John Feinstein is called "Are You Kidding Me?" I'm Dave Davies sitting in today for Terry Gross.

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