As the players struggle to get their rounds in at rain soaked Bethpage Black what better time to take a look back at last years amazing US Open golf tournament. Are You Kidding Me?: The Story of Rocco Mediate’s Extraordinary Battle with Tiger Woods at the US Open by Rocco Mediate and John Feinstein does just that and in entertaining and enlightening fashion.
For those of you not golf fans, or who inexplicably didn’t follow the amazing events of last year, here is recap. Tiger Woods was coming of April knee surgery and hadn’t played a 18-hole round of golf before the US Open started. Many wondered if Tiger would finish the tournament. But if Tiger is in the field then he is the favorite; and he had won at Torry Pines, the US Open site, many times including earlier that year at the Buick Open.
Rocco Mediate was a successful PGA journeyman whose bad back had kept him from achieving the kind of success his talent might have brought him. He was more famous for his talkative demeanor than for competing in majors. If you had to pick a player that would challenge Tiger Woods for a major championship, and in spectacular fashion, you would not have picked Mediate.
But last year these two very different golfers produced one of the most memorable US Opens in golf history. Tiger mixed in some very ugly golf with the kind of shots only Tiger can make to storm to the lead after 54 holes. Thirteen times before Tiger has taken the lead after three rounds and thirteen times he has won. And yet Mediate pushed Tiger to the brink; twice forcing him to make birdie on the final hole to stay alive.
Mediate in turn frequently seemed about to fade away and let Tiger grab another spectacular win. But on numerous occasions he pulled himself together and played remarkable golf in the most pressure cooker of situations (three successive birdies on the Monday playoff to take it too sudden death). In the end it took Tiger 92 holes to beat Rocco. Tiger may have had a bad knee, but Rocco still forced arguably the greatest golfer of all time, and one of sports most dominant competitors, to use everything he had to win. And Tiger labeled it his greatest win ever.
You don’t have to be a golf or sports fan to appreciate the drama and appeal of this story. But what Mediate and Feinstein offer in Are You Kidding Me? is not just a shot by shot recap of the tournament – although the coverage of the event is well done – but rather a better understanding of the person and golfer behind it.As a pretty avid fan of the PGA I knew who Rocco Mediate was and knew of his back problems. But I didn’t really know that much about his career and how he came to be on the Tour. It turns out that Rocco wasn’t a high school or college superstar but rather someone who came to golf relatively late and who became a pro through hard work and dedication.
Sure, Mediate clearly had talent and athletic ability (his dad was a semi-pro baseball player and avid golfer) but he wasn’t one of those young phenoms who everyone expects to join the PGA and make a splash. He didn’t win a college national championship or US Amateur championships, but his personality was such that when he wanted to do something he put his whole heart and mind into it. And that is exactly what he did with golf.
AYKM also provides a interesting snapshot of what it is like to make a living on the PGA Tour. It shows the growth of the tour, and the explosion of purses post-Tiger, but it also highlights all of the myriad decisions and the emotional roller coaster ride that the tour involves if you are not one of the elite players. Qualifying through Q-school; worrying about making enough money to keep your tour card; figuring out which tournaments to play; knowing when to rest and when to play; managing your finances; working with coaches, caddies and mentors to improve your game; dealing with the logistics and difficulties of having a family while being on the road; all of these and more go into being a successful tour professional. Watching golf on TV, or even in person, you might not be aware of all that goes on behind the scenes and in the golfers lives.
What stands out in this story is Mediate’s struggle with back problems. All golfers struggle with back pain, and Rocco is not the only one to have his career threatened by injury, but his story is an interesting one nonetheless. The up and down nature of the injury made for a very challenging career. When he was healthy Mediate was one of the better players on tour and, particular if his putter was hot, a threat to win most weeks. But if his back flared up he could end up face down in the parking lot unable to move or stuck mid-round trying to figure out how could finish the round without embarrassing himself.
Mediate made a lot of money on the PGA Tour as Tiger’s impact on the game pushed purses higher and higher. But imagine wondering if your career, and your only real opportunity to make a living, could go away with one twist of muscle. It is a testament to Mediate’s determination and dedication that he never gave up. And this competitive nature helps illuminate what led him to challenge Tiger Woods last year at Torrey Pines.
All of this struggle and all of this pain made the amazing days last June all the sweeter for Rocco. He got his dream of facing the best player on the planet for a chance to win the US Open. And he gave it everything he had and came within inches – a rotation of a golf ball one way or the other – from winning it. Even losing that week changed changed his life, but there will always be a bitter-sweet element to it. As Rocco has said many times: “I lost. The other guy won.”
The fact that he did so with so much skill, courage and good humor, however, only added to the incredible events last summer. His obvious enjoyment of the game and of the moment reminded us why we love sports. And it caused millions of people all over the world come to appreciate his character and his game.
Are You Kidding Me? is a must read for golf and sport fans – and would make a great Father’s Day gift. But you don’t have to be a fan of the game to appreciate the story. It really is a classic tale of overcoming adversity and giving your best when everything is on the line and letting the chips fall where they will.
Who knows what will come of this year’s Open. Maybe another incredible fight to the finish will result from the weather problems. But last years battle at Torrey Pines will be remembered for a long time. And Rocco Mediate and John Feinstein have told the story as no one else can.