Planet Golf — 01 July 2013 by Jim Street
Rocco eager for first Boeing Classic

When you’ve gone head-to-head against one of the greatest golfers of all-time in a 19-hole playoff for the U.S. Open championship, and are still reminded almost daily of that epic duel five years later, you’d  think the last thing you need worry about is being accepted by your peers.

But acceptance was foremost on Rocco Mediate’s mind when he teed it up on the Champions Tour for the first time in the Allianz Championship in Boca Raton, Fla., in February.

Not to worry.

Rocco made an immediate impact on the 50-and-older tour, becoming just the 16th player to win his Champions Tour debut.

“All I wanted to do was prove to the guys that I belong out here,” Mediate said. “It may sound funny, but it was fairly surprising that I got it together so quickly. I usually hit it good, but I really putted well. You cannot survive on this tour just striking the ball. You have to do it all.”

The six-time PGA Tour winner has the Boeing Classic on his Champions Tour schedule and he’ll be among some of the biggest names in the game at the three-round event played at TPC Snoqualmie on August 19-25.

“The guys on the Champions Tour love (the Boeing Classic) because the golf course is really cool,” Mediate said. “I think it’s one of Jack’s (Nicklaus) best ones. I liked it the first time I saw it a few years ago. It has everything you need, a good practice area, good golf course. It’s going to be fun.”

Of all the Champions Tour tournaments Mediate will play this year, the Boeing Classic could be the most memorable. For one thing, the TPC course is among the most scenic in the world, the crowds are huge and the hospitality is over the top. This one figures to be a family affair for Rocco.

“My (three) boys are up there (in Bellevue) and I get up there to visit them as often as I can,” Mediate said during a recent media conference call. “They love it there and I have spent a lot of time at the Snoqualmie golf course the last couple of years. I’m looking forward to playing a Champions Tour event on a course that I have actually seen (and played) before.”

His three sons from a previous marriage — ages 22, 20 and 17 — no doubt are just as excited to watch their dad compete against many of his contemporaries from years ago – many of whom are just as good, if not better, than ever.

“It’s ridiculous how good the competition is on this tour,” Rocco said. “These guys are still really, really good.”

So good that Mediate shot 70-69-68-69 at last week’s Seniors Championship and tied for 22nd place.

But it didn’t take until last week for Mediate to see just how good his competitors still are.

“I made a comment after my second event (The ACE Group Classic in Naples, Fla.) that the competition on the Champions Tour is as much as you would want anywhere,” he said. “It’s tough out there. Guys are winning at 17-under par over three days – on difficult courses. Golf is something you can get better at as you get older.”

Jay Don Blake returns as Boeing Classic champion

Jay Don Blake returns as Boeing Classic champion

The loquacious Mediate discussed several topics during the conference call, including the use of the soon-to-be-banned long putter. “I wasn’t the first player to use it,” he said, “but I was the first to win with it – The Doral in 1991.”

He went to the long putter because it was easier on his back and used it for almost 14 years, from 1991 to 2003, before going back to the conventional short putter.

“It helps (your back), but it doesn’t help them go in. I can attest to that,” he said. “I left the long putter because my back was better and I wanted both hands on the wheel.”

Although his debut victory on the Champions Tour — a win featured by an 11-under 61 on Saturday and a clinching birdie putt on the 18th on Sunday — the last of his six PGA Tour victories still stands tall on his list of wins.

He captured the Frys.com championship title in 2010, becoming the oldest player since at least 1970 to lead wire-to-wire. Mediate holed out all four days. On Thursday, he aced the 189 yard par-3 3rd hole. On Friday, he holed out from 160 yards on the par-4 4th hole for an eagle, followed on Saturday with a hole-out from 111 yards on the par-5 15th hole, also for eagle. On Sunday, he was tied for the lead on the 17th hole when he holed from 116 yards for eagle to take a two shot lead.

The win soothed a little of the pain remaining from two years earlier, when he lost a 19-hole playoff against Tiger Woods at Torrey Pines. It’s still regarded as one of the best U.S. Open’s in history.

“I think I played good enough to beat him. But I didn’t,” Rocco said. “If I would have bogeyed the last two holes on Sunday, or triple-bogeyed a hole in the playoff and lost because of it, it probably would have ended my career. That stuff can beat you up. That didn’t really (let the loss) affect me and it could have. It never destroyed me, but it took a year for me to get over it.

“The Fry’s tournament saved my life in golf. I didn’t want the U.S. Open to be my last anything. I won a tour event two years later and I don’t think people know how much that meant to me. Not the money, but just beating the guys before I had to leave (the Tour). That made it better.”

But there has been some fallout.

"Pals" Rocco and Tiger

“Pals” Rocco and Tiger

In an interview with The Golf Channel’s David Feherty, Mediate said that not only have he and Woods never discussed the latter’s most recent major win, but Woods actually snubbed his request to commemorate the tournament.

According to Mediate, at the 2009 Players Championship just more than a year later, he sent a photo and note to Woods asking for a personalized autograph. However, what he got back was nothing more than a generic signature, with no mention of their epic battle. The note was thrown into the trash.

“Why wouldn’t he just go, ‘Roc, you suck, you got lucky for six days. I had a broken leg’ … just mess with me, and then sign my pin sheet so I could put the damn thing on the wall and say, ‘Almost got the guy that day,’” Mediate said. “I could go buy one of those pictures if I want one.”

Time heals all wounds and Rocco has moved past the Tiger snub.

“There are some amazing stories that came out of that week and I am the only one who talks about it,” Rocco said. “Other guy (Woods) doesn’t talk about it. I would love to hear some of his stories. I haven’t heard anything. There is nothing wrong with it. I have talked about Tiger forever and he has been one of my favorite guys and still is. I am a huge fan. I hope he does break the record. That’s all he wants anyway.”

For the record, Rocco has won as many majors since the U.S. Open in ’08 as has Tiger.

And even now, five years later, Mediate still is asked about that classic U.S. Open.

“I can promise you that every day I’m out in public, I will be asked about it,” he said. “Obviously, I wish it would have been a little bit different at the end. But I don’t get tired talking about it.”

Reflecting back on the 19-hole playoff, the outcome settled by a sudden death extension, Rocco said he would like for all of the Majors to be settled the following day.

“There really is no comparison between a sudden death, or 2-to-3-hole playoff, like in the PGA and Masters, than being tied, sleeping on it and going out the next day to play 18 (or more) holes for the whole ball of wax,” he said. “That’s how it should be because they are too important.”

Not quite as important as, say a U.S. Open, but not far from it.

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Jim Street

Jim’s 40-year sportswriting career started with the San Jose Mercury-News in 1970 and ended on a full-time basis on October 31, 2010 following a 10-year stint with MLB.com. He grew up in Dorris, Calif., several long drives from the nearest golf course. His first tee shot was a week before being inducted into the Army in 1968. Upon his return from Vietnam, where he was a war correspondent for the 9th Infantry Division, Jim took up golf semi-seriously while working for the Mercury-News and covered numerous tournaments, including the U.S. Open in 1982, when Tom Watson made the shot of his life on the 17th hole at Pebble Beach. Jim also covered several Bing Crosby Pro-Am tournaments, the women’s U.S. Open, and other golfing events in the San Francisco area. He has a 17-handicap, never had a hole-in-one, although once he came within two inches of an ace, and witnessed the first round Ken Griffey Jr. ever played – at Arizona State during Spring Training in 1990. Pebble Beach Golf Links, the Kapalua Plantation Course, Pinehurst No. 2, Spyglass Hill, Winged Foot, Torrey Pines, Medinah, Chambers Bay, North Berwick in Scotland, and Princeville are among the courses he has had the pleasure of playing. Hitting the ball down the middle of the fairway is not a strong part of Jim’s game, but he is known (in his own mind) as the best putter not on tour. Most of Jim’s writing career was spent covering Major League baseball, a tenure that started with the Oakland Athletics, who won 101 games in 1971, and ended with the Seattle Mariners, who lost 101 games in 2010. Symmetry is a wonderful thing. He currently lives in Seattle and vacations in Arizona (and other warm climates) as much as possible.

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