Rocco Ages Old hand Rocco Mediate ended a six-year drought by ambushing the Tour's young guns in Phoenix

February 08, 1999

The ball was barely airborne, but Rocco Mediate had already
sized up its flight. "That's a big toe hook," Mediate said, the
disgust registering on his face. "Just like the one I hit on 17
today."

As Jason Elam's failed field goal attempt fluttered into the
Miami night, Mediate sat back in his love seat, twirled the ice
cubes in his Scotch and reached for his bleating cell phone.
Super Bowl XXXIII would have to wait. Nearly three hours had
passed since Mediate pulled out a taut victory at the Phoenix
Open, and although sequestered in a buddy's condo near the TPC
of Scottsdale, he couldn't hide from the well-wishers. Mom and
Dad in Pennsylvania, the wife and three kids back home in
Florida, even his friend Alex Lifeson, the lead guitarist for
the classic rock band Rush, had all called. Not that Mediate
ever minds talking. He leads the PGA Tour in loquaciousness, if
nothing else. So it was downright shocking when, during a
fourth-quarter lull, a reflective Mediate was rendered almost
speechless. "It's weird," he said. "I can't explain what it
feels like right now to be sitting here having won that
tournament. I didn't know if I had what it takes to win again. I
really didn't."

Mediate, a 36-year-old vet with two previous career victories,
began the final round at Phoenix with an unnerving six-stroke
lead and then spent a grueling afternoon being stalked by a
leader board full of major-championship winners, including a
hard-charging Justin Leonard and an oft-sputtering Tiger Woods.
This was all a little much for a guy who hadn't won since 1993
and who had had exactly one top three finish in the five seasons
that followed. "I'm not even the same person I was five years
ago," Mediate says, and that's no exaggeration. Back then he was
a 6'1", 250-pound doughboy whose swing consisted mostly of
getting all his girth moving in the same direction at the same
time. Near the end of '93, a year in which he finished 16th on
the money list, an overtaxed disk in Mediate's back "exploded
all over the place," he says, and he has been trying to round
back into form ever since. A strenuous rehab transformed Mediate
into a buff 190 pounds, and after retooling his swing last
August--it is more upright and compact--he has been hitting the
ball better than at any point in his career. All that was
missing was belief.

Mediate found it under unlikely circumstances--playing in front
of one of the largest and most unruly gathering of fans on Tour,
the vast majority of whom were rooting against him. After
opening with rounds of 69-67, Mediate took a two-shot lead into
the weekend and last Saturday schooled his playing partner,
Woods, 66 to 70. This was a grave disappointment to the 115,000
spectators who turned out to root for Tiger and drink beer, not
necessarily in that order. Mediate was heckled throughout the
day and was actually booed at the 16th hole, the notorious par-3
swillfest. "I heard a couple of stupid comments, but I don't
care," he said after the round. Mediate insisted he couldn't get
enough. He claimed to be happy that Woods birdied the final
hole, which ensured that they would play together in the final
pairing on Sunday. "I want him to be there," Mediate said. "I
want to see what I'm made of in that situation."

Clay, it looked like for most of the day. Mediate didn't make
his first birdie until the 13th hole, and Leonard, who went out
in 32, slashed the deficit to one with a birdie at the 332-yard
par-4 17th. When Mediate reached the tee there, he brazenly
whipped out his driver, hit his Elam-like hook to the front edge
of the expansive green and followed with a clutch two-putt for
birdie from "a million feet," he said. The lead was back up to
two, and Mediate ended any suspense with a strong drive and a
textbook approach on the watery 18th. "The last shot I hit was
the best swing I've ever made," Mediate said, before adding,
unnecessarily, "I tend to exaggerate some."

Mediate prevailed with an impressive combination of accurate
driving (he hit 21 of 28 fairways on the weekend) and clutch
putting (only one three-jack in four rounds), but Woods was most
impressed with Mediate's composure. "Rocco is very loose," Woods
said. "No matter whether he's shooting 80 or 60, he's still the
same."

Mediate, in kind, offered a candid assessment of Woods's game:
"The only difference between Tiger now and Tiger when he was
winning all those tournaments is that he's not making any
putts." That was the case on Sunday, when Woods labored to 10
straight pars to open his round, failing to capitalize on
Mediate's shaky start. Not that Tiger's front side lacked
excitement. On the 6th hole a man heckling Woods had to be
subdued after lunging at a police officer and was found to be
carrying a pistol. Though Brian K. Murphy, 40, of Phoenix, had a
permit to carry a concealed weapon, he was charged with
aggravated assault of a police officer and disorderly conduct.

Woods did make three birdies down the stretch (one with the help
of a group of fans who rolled a massive boulder out of the way
of Woods's shot to the par-5 13th hole) for a 68 at the par-71
course and third place, a stroke behind Leonard, but his
inability to make key putts is becoming chronic. When he joined
the Tour, in 1996, Woods putted boldly, like Tom Watson when
Watson was in his prime. These days he's putting like the wobbly
Watson, circa 1994.

Woods's failure to make a charge over the final two rounds was
all the more notable because the Phoenix Open was the first
tournament in his career in which he was neither the biggest
attraction nor the consensus pick as the world's best player.
David Duval solidified his grip on both titles the week before
with his closing 59 to win the Hope. The fact that Phoenix
marked Woods's 33rd straight week atop the World Ranking
provoked howls of protest from all quarters. Said Phil
Mickelson, "It doesn't make sense for anybody other than David
to be on top." Outwardly, Woods was blase about the prospect of
ceding the top spot to Duval, which seems only a matter of time.
"If he does it, he does it," Woods said. "If he doesn't, he
doesn't."

Woods nearly pulled a muscle last week trying to downplay his
rivalry with Duval. "It's a media thing," he said last Friday.
"You guys are famous for doing this, trying to blow up rivalries,
trying to stir things up." Woods went on to say how earlier in
the week he and Duval had enjoyed a pleasant lunch together. "We
always have lunch together," Woods said, growing exasperated.
"Nothing has changed. Nothing."

When Duval was asked if he thinks Woods is happy to be sharing
the spotlight, he couldn't help smiling. "I haven't gotten that
feeling, no," he said.

That was on Friday, and Duval was sprawled out on a bench in the
clubhouse, where he was absorbing some good-natured ribbing from
his colleagues. (Scott Verplank: "Hey, congrats, David, you
finally made a cut!") To that point Duval had put up rounds of
74-71, and he was clearly spent from the whirlwind of the
previous six days.

The first hint of how crazy things were going to be came moments
after Duval finished off his 59, when he turned on his cell
phone and found that he already had 16 messages. The attention
was unrelenting. Upon arriving in Phoenix, Duval and his
girlfriend, Julie McArthur, made the mistake of checking into
their hotel room under their own names, and twice early in the
week radio stations called after 10 p.m. to try to squeeze in
unscheduled interviews. Alas, there was one call that never
came. "I was a little disappointed Bill [Clinton] didn't ring,"
Duval said, deadpan.

On Saturday, Duval gave himself a chance to go three for three
in '99 by creeping back into the picture with a strong 66, which
matched the low round of the week. In 10th place heading into
the final round, he closed with another 74 to finish 18th.
"Can't win 'em all," he said.

No one is confusing Mediate with Duval, not yet anyway, but Rocco
is worth keeping an eye on, especially since he's still getting
used to an old putter and a new caddie. Last year Mediate hit the
ball solidly enough to make 20 of 24 cuts, but his low round for
the year was a tepid 67. Frustrated, he went back to a
48 1/2-inch-long putter late in the season. The switch has
restored his confidence.

Mediate's short game has been further upgraded by Pete Bender,
the salty old bag rat Mediate took on last July. Bender has been
on Tour since 1969 and has had long runs packing for Ray Floyd,
Jack Nicklaus, Greg Norman and Lanny Wadkins, among others. "I
wouldn't be here without him," Mediate said during the
champion's press conference, but back at the condo, watching the
Super Bowl, he was less reverent, telling assorted callers how
Bender "cried like a little girl" after the victory.

Mediate himself was strangely emotionless. Maybe it was the
game. Clicking off the telecast and heading for a celebratory
steak dinner, he said, "I would have liked to have seen the
Falcons win. Underdogs, you know?"

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY JIM GUND COLOR PHOTO: J.D. CUBAN Mob scene Sun, suds and 40,000 fans make the 16th the rowdiest hole on Tour. COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND Starring roll Caught between a rock and a hard place on the 13th hole, Woods got a favorable ruling from an official and a big lift from some of his fans. COLOR PHOTO: CRAIG JONES/ALLSPORT [See caption above]

Woods nearly pulled a muscle trying to downplay any rivalry with
Duval. "It's a media thing," he said.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)