Showdown On The Green: When Tiger Met Rocco In his new book Are You Kidding Me? journalist John Feinstein chronicles the dramatic showdown that occured at the 2008 U.S. Open when Rocco Mediate, a pro-golfer with a ranking of 158th, challenged Tiger Woods to a sudden-death playoff.
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Showdown On The Green: When Tiger Met Rocco

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Showdown On The Green: When Tiger Met Rocco

Showdown On The Green: When Tiger Met Rocco

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This is FRESH AIR. Terry Gross is under the weather today. I'm Dave Davies, senior writer for the Philadelphia Daily News, filling in for her.

Last June, millions of people who know and care nothing about golf were mesmerized by the final round battle at the US Open, played at the Torrey Pines golf course in San Diego. The world's best, Tiger Woods, was playing with a torn knee ligament that inflicted such pain that he cried out in agony and bent over after several swings.

But just as compelling a figure was Woods' adversary: a paunchy 45 year old journeyman from the tour, with a regular guy look and the unlikely name of Rocco Mediate. It was a script that could have been written in Hollywood. Woods had won 13 major tournaments. Mediate, though a respectable golfer when healthy, had none. Woods was trim and muscular. Mediate looked like the guy next door.

Woods walked the course in resolute silence. Mediate grinned and chattered incessantly. Mediate battled Woods to a draw, setting up an 18-hole playoff the following day. Woods eventually prevailed, and my guest, John Feinstein, says the match was so intensely followed, that trading on Wall Street plummeted during its final two hours.

Mediate has joined with Feinstein to write a memoir and account of the battle called "Are You Kidding Me?" A little later, we'll speak with Rocco Mediate. First, John Feinstein. He's a regular contributor to MORNING EDITION, and the author of more than a dozen sports books, as well as three sports mystery novels for young readers. He also writes for the Washington Post and Golf Digest.

Well, John Feinstein, welcome to FRESH AIR. This book is about this epic battle between Tiger Woods, the best golfer anybody's ever seen, and this wonderful, affable 45 year old Rocco Mediate, who, when this tournament began, was, I think you write, the 158th ranked player in the world. When this tournament began, was he even on your radar?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. JOHN FEINSTEIN (Author, "Are You Kidding Me?"): I don't think he was on anybody's radar except his own, Dave. I think that the great thing about golf is that stories like this do happen on occasion. And in Rocco's case, he was someone who had been a good player, not a great player, but a good player, when healthy. And those two words were kind of the key to his career and to his life.

He'd had back problems dating back to the early 1990s: he'd had back surgery in 1994. He'd had issues with the back on and off ever since then and had finally felt healthy for about a year leading into this open. But he still had to go through a qualifier, just to get to play. Each year at the US Open, there are only about 60 to 70 players who are exempt into the tournament.

In other words, Tiger Woods doesn't have to qualify, he just shows up and plays. But most players among the 156 who are in the field on the first day have to go through these qualifiers. And Rocco, because his ranking in the world was 158th, as you mentioned, had to actually play in a 36 hole qualifier. I think there were 23 spots available at this particular qualifier, and there were 139 players. And they had to play 36 holes in one day.

At the end of the 36 holes, Rocco was in an 11-way tie for 17th place, which meant that those 11 players had to go off and play sudden death for the final six spots in the field - first player to make a birdie or one of the first six players to make a birdie would qualify. You make a bogey, you're probably out. And Rocco, fortunately, as the sun was setting, because it's a long day at those qualifiers, made a birdie at the first of the playoff holes.

He was the only one of the 11 players to make a birdie, and thus qualified to get to play. That got him into the Open.

DAVIES: And when we - remind us of birdie and bogey, just for golf newcomers.

Mr. FEINSTEIN: For those who aren't familiar with golf, each hole is assigned a par, depending on its length. It's either a par three, a par four, or a par five. If you score underneath the par score, that's called a birdie. If you're two shots under the par score, it's an eagle. If you score one shot over whatever the par number is, it's a bogey. And if you're two over, it's a double bogey, and three over, a triple bogey, and so on.

DAVIES: Now, you write about Tiger Woods. Everybody knows he's, you know, unmatched, alone and apart among golfers. Talk a little bit about what he was like when he first appeared, and in particular, his relationship with other players and with the media, the kind of posture he struck.

Mr. FEINSTEIN: Well, when Tiger first came on tour, late in 1996, there was almost a Tiger zone, that very few people entered, whether he was in the locker room or on the driving range, or anywhere at a golf tournament. The only people who regularly entered that zone were his agents, his family, his swing coach, his caddy, and maybe one or two other close friends. And most of the other players on tour were either intimidated by him, because he was such a big star when he arrived on tour, or jealous of him, because he was such a big star when he arrived on tour.

And he was a 20 year old kid who, as great as his golf was, was still learning his way on the tour, the way anybody in a new job has to learn their way. One of the few people who was not either jealous or intimidated by Tiger Woods was Rocco Mediate.

Rocco remembered when he first came on tour - now he wasn't a star by any means when he came on tour - but he remembered older players, like Tom Weiskopf and Raymond Floyd and Curtis Strange, who sort of reached out to him and said, look kid, this is how you do it, this is how you don't do it, because he didn't know.

DAVIES: And what did he tell him? What was something that Tiger needed to learn?

Mr. FEINSTEIN: Well, what Tiger needed to learn, for one thing, was how to communicate with the other pros, because he really didn't know how. He had lived in this cocoon of stardom from the time he was a teenager. He won the US Junior Championship when he was 15 years old, youngest player in history to do it. He won a US Amateur when he was 18 years old, youngest player in history to do it. He'd gone to Stanford for two years. So he had some sense of how to socialize in college, but not how to socialize in a locker room with other guys who were his peers or his elders.

And Rocco was one of the guys who said, look, this is what we do. He kind of helped him assimilate into the PGA Tour, which wasn't as easy as you might think it would be for someone who's such a big star.

DAVIES: Just describe them, kind of physically - what their presence is like on the golf course, how they're different.

Mr. FEINSTEIN: Well, Tiger looks like he was born to play some kind of sport. He's tall and he's lean - he's about 6'2", which is very tall for a golfer -most of the great golfers in history have been under six feet tall. Tiger's about 6'2", he's in great shape, he works out all the time. He's gotten bigger through the years, physically. He used to be much more lean and wiry, but he's bulked himself up through the years.

And there's just not an ounce of fat on him. He looks like he could walk or run from California to New York and not be breathing hard. And again, his demeanor is always very stern. You'll see him smile when he hits a great shot. You might see him smile when he gets lucky, he'll get this sheepish grin on his face. But for the most part, he's very stone faced throughout a round of golf.

Rocco looks like a guy you might meet on the first tee on Saturday morning at your local municipal golf course. He was once very heavy. He's no longer very heavy because he lost a lot of weight after his back surgery, during his rehab. He went from about 5'11" 250 to 5'11" 210 now. So he's in good enough shape, certainly, to play golf. But he always looks a little bit rumpled, even though he wears, you know, very nice clothing on the golf course.

And he never stops talking, never stops smiling throughout a round of golf. He may roll his eyes every once in a while when he hits a bad shot, but for the most part, he looks like he's having a good time, and looks like the kind of guy you'd love to play 18 holes with and then go have a beer.

DAVIES: So when this open begins, and Tiger, everybody knows, is the man to beat, even though he'd had knee problems coming in, and people weren't sure about that. And Rocco is a guy people know, but aren't expecting much from, being the 158th ranked player in the world - comes in and he's, what, leading after the first round and…

Mr. FEINSTEIN: No, he was actually, he was in third place.


Mr. FEINSTEIN: He's one shot out of the lead.

DAVIES: In the mix - but then after round two, he was still in the mix, right?

Mr. FEINSTEIN: Right, he was in second place at that point.

DAVIES: All right, just talk a little bit about kind of how you, in the media, what he was like, kind of what that felt like as you talked to him about what that was…

Mr. FEINSTEIN: Well, everybody is very happy in the media when a guy like Rocco is on the leader board because you want an excuse to talk to someone like him, because he's what's known as a good talker. He's a storyteller, he has a sense of humor, he enjoys spending time with the media. Most players at best tolerate the media. Rocco enjoys the media. When they say to Rocco, you're wanted in the interview room, he's happy about it.

Most guys are like, oh, God, where is it? Do I have to - how far do I have to traipse to get there? Things like that. So when Rocco was in contention, it gave everybody - at the very least, first couple of days - I think Rocco was probably everybody's sidebar. The lead was still going to be: how was Tiger Woods doing? What was the match up like with Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson paying together in the first two rounds, which had never been done before - the two top players in the world being paired in the same threesome, and the leaders themselves. So I think the first two days, Rocco was kind of a good sidebar for everybody, a guy who'd battled injuries, who'd had to qualify to get in, who had good stories to tell. But I don't think anybody was expecting that late Sunday afternoon he was still going to be the story.

DAVIES: We're speaking with John Feinstein. His book with Rocco Mediate about the 2008 US Open is called, "Are You Kidding Me?" We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of Music)

DAVIES: If you're just joining us, we're speaking with veteran sports writer John Feinstein. His new book with Rocco Mediate, about Rocco's battle with Tiger Woods at the 2008 US Open, is called "Are You Kidding Me?"

After three rounds of the tournament, there's of course four rounds, and the third round finishes on Saturday. Tiger was ahead by a stroke, is that right?

Mr. FEINSTEIN: Correct.

DAVIES: Right. What's his record when he enters the last day of a major ahead by a stroke?

Mr. FEINSTEIN: 14 and 0, when he is in the lead. He has never lost the lead at a major championship, and that's a stat that, you know, crops up obviously whenever he leads. He rolled in a very long putt, an eagle putt, which is two under par on a hole, at the 18th hole, he made a three on a par five hole, and that jumped him over Lee Westwood, who was in second place at the time. Rocco was two shots back.

DAVIES: And that was on the third round, on Saturday, right?

Mr. FEINSTEIN: This is at the end of the third round, into the lead. And the first thing the announcers on NBC, Dan Hicks and Johnny Miller said, Tiger Woods, 13 and 0, has never lost the lead in a major championship and he will take the lead into the final round of tomorrow's US Open.

DAVIES: So there we are that Sunday. And you've got Tiger Woods, the best in the world, and Rocco Mediate. And everybody knows that nobody beats Tiger when he has the lead. Give us a feel for what people saw that day. What was Rocco like? How did he behave, how did he win people's hearts?

Mr. FEINSTEIN: Well, I think it was a two day process of Rocco winning people's hearts. Again, you go into Sunday, as you said, Tiger Woods is leading. So most people expect he's going to win. In fact, people were probably expecting he'd win by three or four, because he had played progressively better Thursday, Friday, Saturday. And Lee Westwood, who's a very good player from Europe, who'd never won a major, was chasing him. Rocco was chasing him. Couple others were a few shots further back, but really not within hailing distance.

And what happened that day was Tiger, who struggled all week on the first hole at Torrey Pines, which was the club where they were playing, made a double bogey on the first hole. And all of a sudden he brings everybody back into the tournament. Everybody looks up and says, huh. Maybe he's human today. Maybe we have a chance. Rocco birdied the second hole.

So within two holes, he had actually passed Tiger, as had Lee Westwood, and then it became this three-way battle. And it came down to Tiger having a 12 foot putt, which is far from automatic, that he had to make for birdie, to tie Rocco and create the playoff. And by now, the way it is - if there were 50 cameras, I'm making up that number, 25 of them were watching Tiger putt and 25 of them were watching Rocco watching Tiger putt.

And the putt, if you watch it on a replay, Dave, literally went in the hole by an inch. It just skirted the edge of the cup, went around to the back of the cup, and dropped in. And Tiger had one of his reactions that we've all seen where he went completely crazy when the putt went in. And there were Tiger Woods and Rocco Mediate heading to an 18 hole playoff on Monday to decide the US Open.

DAVIES: And on Monday, I mean, it's - it was an amazing story on Monday. I mean, Rocco ends up three strokes behind Tiger in the middle, manages to come back and actually take a lead, but then lose eventually. Tiger ties him on the last hole, they go to a one hole playoff, and Rocco loses the tournament.

But it seems to me that he did something that day that no golfer before, including the top ranked players in the world had done, which is to catch Tiger on the last day, when Tiger had a lead. And really give him a run. Why do you think Rocco was able to do this, when nobody else could?

Mr. FEINSTEIN: Well again, I think it gets back to the fact that he's never been intimidated by Tiger, the way so many players are. As I said, they walk on the first tee, he gives them that glare, they know he's not going to talk to them, they know how good he is. And most of them melt. And Rocco's attitude was: I'm not going to let that happen.

On the first tee - excuse me, on the practice tee that day, Rocco was wearing a red shirt. If you follow golf, you know Tiger always wears red on Sunday. That's his Sunday color, for winning a tournament. And Rocco woke up Monday morning, he hadn't expected to be playing a fifth day. The only clean shirt he had was red. And he said, I had a choice. I could wear a red shirt, a dirty shirt, or no shirt. I opted for the red one.

And he walked out onto the practice tee to warm up, and Tiger came over, wearing a red shirt, and said - and Tiger uses profanity, the way most athletes do in the locker room or in their jock world - and said, nice blanking shirt, to Rocco. And Rocco's response was, hey, it's not Sunday. Sunday's your - your color is red on Sundays. Like, look, I'm not backing down from you. And they were both laughing when they said it. But I think that set a tone for the day.

And right from the beginning, it was clear that Rocco was not going to be intimidated. He wasn't going to roll over. Even when he was, as you mentioned, three shots down after ten holes, there was still a sense that it wasn't over. And Rocco turned it around with three straight birdies, which is extraordinary under those circumstances. Tiger called it one of the great hat-tricks he's ever seen. That's usually a hockey term.

And as you said, had a one shot lead again, coming to 18, and again, because of the difference in length off the tee, Tiger was able to make a birdie, Rocco made a par, and that set up the sudden death where Tiger won.

DAVIES: What effect do you think the experience had on Rocco? I mean, he'd been on the tour for 24 years, people called him the everyman. But suddenly he was at a new level of celebrity. How did it affect him?

Mr. FEINSTEIN: Well I think the first thing he had to do was remind people that he didn't win, because the way people reacted to him, you would have thought that he had won. The fact that, again, that he wasn't intimidated by Tiger and took him 91 holes, and had chances to win both on Sunday and Monday. And he was treated almost as if he had won the tournament. And he had to remind people: look, I'm proud of the way I played, it was a remarkable weekend, but Tiger still won.

I think that it reinforced the notion that people had had for a long time, people who follow golf, that this is a good guy who, when healthy, is a very good player.

DAVIES: You know, he is such a unique personality, and he's unique on the golf course. I mean, he chatters constantly while most pros sort of maintain this focused silence as they move through a round. And I wonder, do you think that kind of, sort of down to Earth, I don't take myself too seriously, outlook he has is a secret to his success on the course?

Mr. FEINSTEIN: I think in a way it is. And friends of his from boyhood talk about the fact that Rocco is always at his best when he has no hope. You know, this is a guy who was not a very good player in high school, who was recruited by no colleges to play golf. Recruited the team that he played on, Florida Southern, he walked on the team, just talked his way onto the team when he got down to Florida Southern. And Rocco is a guy who just, he never seems to get down on himself or on the circumstance.

And that's what's kept him on tour through all these injuries, for all these years. There are a lot of players who, having gone through the back problems -and anybody who's ever had a back problem knows how painful and difficult they can be - would have just walked away by now, and said I don't want to go through the rehab again. I don't want to deal with the pain. I can't play. I can't hit a ball more than 100 yards, which has happened to him during his career.

But Rocco has always, you know, kept his attitude: I'm going to find a way, I know I can do it. He's never lost his sense of humor, I think. One of the stories that's testimony to that is, he literally fell flat on his face one morning at Los Angeles Country Club, getting out of his car, his back just went on him, and he went down. And he was lying there, and his friends were inside the clubhouse waiting for him, and he took out his cell phone to call them and say, come and help me.

And he remembered that you're not allowed to speak on a cell phone in the parking lot at Los Angeles Country Club.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FEINSTEIN: So lying there on his stomach, he texted his friends and said: fell down, can't get up, come get me. And of course, he told the story on himself after it happened, as an example of, you know, what happens when your back goes. But I think that shows you that Rocco always finds a way, and never loses his sense of humor about things.

DAVIES: John Feinstein, thanks so much.

Mr. FEINSTEIN: Thank you, Dave.

DAVIES: John Feinstein is a regular contributor to MORNING EDITION who also writes for the Washington Post and Golf Digest. His book with Rocco Mediate is called "Are You Kidding Me?" We'll speak with Mediate in the second half of the show. I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of Music)

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